Solar cells convert the sun’s energy into electricity by converting photons into electrons. A new solar cell design could raise the energy conversion efficiency to over 50% by absorbing the spectral components of longer wavelengths that are usually lost during transmission through the cell. These findings were published on April 6 in the online edition of Nature Communications.
This research was carried out by a team led by Professor KITA Takashi and Project Assistant Professor ASAHI Shigeo at the Kobe University Graduate School of Engineering.
In theory, 30% energy-conversion efficiency is the upper limit for traditional single-junction solar cells, as most of the solar energy that strikes the cell passes through without being absorbed, or becomes heat energy instead. Experiments have been taking place around the world to create various solar cell designs that can lift these limitations on conversion efficiency and reduce the loss of energy. The current world record is at 46% percent for a 4-junction solar cell. If the energy-conversion efficiency of solar cells surpasses 50%, it would have a big impact on the cost of producing electricity.
In order to reduce these large energy losses and raise efficiency, Professor Kita’s research team used two small photons from the energy transmitted through a single-junction solar cell containing a hetero-interface formed from semiconductors with different bandgaps. Using the photons, they developed a new solar cell structure for generating photocurrents. As well as demonstrating theoretical results of up to 63% conversion efficiency, it experimentally achieved up-conversion based on two photons, a mechanism unique to this solar cell. The reduction in energy loss demonstrated by this experiment is over 100 times more effective compared to previous methods that used intermediate bands.
The team will continue to design solar cells, and assess their performance based on conversion efficiency, working towards a highly efficient solar cell for low-cost energy production.
Reference: April 6 in the online edition of Nature Communications.
Reducing the transmission loss for below-gap photons is a straightforward way to break the limit of the energy-conversion efficiency of solar cells (SCs). The up-conversion of below-gap photons is very promising for generating additional photocurrent. Here we propose a two-step photon up-conversion SC with a hetero-interface comprising different bandgaps of Al0.3Ga0.7As and GaAs. The below-gap photons for Al0.3Ga0.7As excite GaAs and generate electrons at the hetero-interface. The accumulated electrons at the hetero-interface are pumped upwards into the Al0.3Ga0.7As barrier by below-gap photons for GaAs. Efficient two-step photon up-conversion is achieved by introducing InAs quantum dots at the hetero-interface. We observe not only a dramatic increase in the additional photocurrent, which exceeds the reported values by approximately two orders of magnitude, but also an increase in the photovoltage. These results suggest that the two-step photon up-conversion SC has a high potential for implementation in the next-generation high-efficiency SCs.
High-efficiency photovoltaics using n-i-p semiconductor solar cells (SCs) are very promising for generating electrical power by utilizing solar radiation. The conversion efficiency of single-junction SCs is limited to ∼30% of the so-called Shockley–Queisser limit owing to unavoidable losses, such as transmission loss, thermalization loss, Carnot loss, Boltzmann loss and emission loss1,2. In particular, the main factors influencing this efficiency limitation are the transmission loss of below-gap photons and the thermalization of photogenerated carriers towards the band edge2. Below-bandgap photons with energy smaller than the bandgap of SC are not absorbed and do not contribute to create carriers. Many efforts have been made to realize high-efficiency SCs by breaking the conversion limit and several concepts have been proposed to improve the efficiency3,4,5,6,7,8,9. One promising SC is the intermediate-band SC (IBSC) containing an additional parallel diode connection, which can reduce the transmission loss5,6. The IBSC includes intermediate states in the bandgap. By absorbing a below-gap photon, an electron transits from the valence band (VB) to the intermediate band (IB). Upon absorbing another below-gap photon, the electron is further excited into the conduction band (CB). This two-step photon up-conversion (TPU) process following the absorption of two below-gap photons produces additional photocurrent without degrading the photovoltage. According to ideal theoretical predictions, the IBSC is expected to exhibit extremely high conversion efficiency, >60%, under the maximum concentration and 48.2% under one-sun irradiation5. Substantial progress has been made in this field10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27 since Luque and Martí have proposed this concept of IBSC in 1997 (ref. 5). Generally, the absorption strength of the intraband transition from the IB to the CB is very weak14,15,16 and the energy relaxation of the excited electrons into the IB is fast17,18. Therefore, improving the second-excitation efficiency in the TPU process strongly influences the conversion efficiency. The optical selection rule for light irradiating the SC surface is relaxed by designing the electronic properties of the quantized states in low-dimensional structures, such as quantum dots (QDs)19 and impurities20. Obviously, carriers in the IB that have long lifetimes have a greater capacity to improve the TPU efficiency because the absorption coefficient between the CB and IB is proportional to the electron density in the initial state of the intraband transition. However, the application of an additional infrared (IR) light corresponding to 40 suns has been observed to improve the external quantum efficiency (EQE) by <0.5% (refs 21, 22). The further enhancement of TPU is essential to accomplish high conversion efficiency above 50% under sunlight concentration.
TPU has been known to occur at the hetero-interfaces between III and V semiconductors. Extensive studies have been conducted on photoluminescence up-conversion phenomena28,29,30,31,32,33,34. Recently, Sellers et al. have proposed a SC structure which attempts optical up-conversion in electrically isolated up-conversion layers35,36, where high-energy photons emitted by radiative recombination of up-converted electron and hole in the up-conversion layers are absorbed in a SC stacked on it.
Here, we propose a TPU-SC with a hetero-interface, where up-converted electrons are directly collected by the top electrode. We demonstrate an enhancement of the photovoltage as well as a dramatic increase in the photocurrent. This enhancement indicates that the quasi-Fermi gap widens according to the electron excitation into Al0.3Ga0.7As.