A new form of solid, stable light-sensitive nanoparticles, called colloidal quantum dots, could lead to cheaper and more flexible solar cells, as well as better gas sensors, infrared lasers, infrared light emitting diodes and more. The work, led by post-doctoral researcher Zhijun Ning and Professor Ted Sargent.
Collecting sunlight using these tiny colloidal quantum dots depends on two types of semiconductors: n-type, which are rich in electrons; and p-type, which are poor in electrons. The problem? When exposed to the air, n-type materials bind to oxygen atoms, give up their electrons, and turn into p-type. Ning and colleagues modelled and demonstrated a new colloidal quantum dot n-type material that does not bind oxygen when exposed to air.
Maintaining stable n- and p-type layers simultaneously not only boosts the efficiency of light absorption, it opens up a world of new optoelectronic devices that capitalize on the best properties of both light and electricity. For the average person, this means more sophisticated weather satellites, remote controllers, satellite communication, or pollution detectors.
“This is a material innovation, that’s the first part, and with this new material we can build new device structures,” said Ning. “Iodide is almost a perfect ligand for these quantum solar cells with both high efficiency and air stability—no one has shown that before.”
Ning’s new hybrid n- and p-type material achieved solar power conversion efficiency up to eight per cent—among the best results reported to date.
Surface engineering of CQD solids for air stability.
But improved performance is just a start for this new quantum-dot-based solar cell architecture. The powerful little dots could be mixed into inks and painted or printed onto thin, flexible surfaces, such as roofing shingles, dramatically lowering the cost and accessibility of solar power for millions of people.
“The field of colloidal quantum dot photovoltaics requires continued improvement in absolute performance, or power conversion efficiency,” said Sargent. “The field has moved fast, and keeps moving fast, but we need to work toward bringing performance to commercially compelling levels.”
Colloidal quantum dots (CQDs) offer promise in flexible electronics, light sensing and energy conversion. These applications rely on rectifying junctions that require the creation of high-quality CQD solids that are controllably n-type (electron-rich) or p-type (hole-rich). Unfortunately, n-type semiconductors made using soft matter are notoriously prone to oxidation within minutes of air exposure. Here we report high-performance, air-stable n-type CQD solids. Using density functional theory we identify inorganic passivants that bind strongly to the CQD surface and repel oxidative attack. A materials processing strategy that wards off strong protic attack by polar solvents enabled the synthesis of an air-stable n-type PbS CQD solid. This material was used to build an air-processed inverted quantum junction device, which shows the highest current density from any CQD solar cell and a solar power conversion efficiency as high as 8%. We also feature the n-type CQD solid in the rapid, sensitive, and specific detection of atmospheric NO2. This work paves the way for new families of electronic devices that leverage air-stable quantum-tuned materials.