Treating cadmium-telluride (CdTe) solar cell materials with cadmium-chloride improves their efficiency, but researchers have not fully understood why.
Now, an atomic-scale examination of the thin-film solar cells led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has answered this decades-long debate about the materials’ photovoltaic efficiency increase after treatment.
Cross-sectional electron beam-induced current maps show the difference in cadmium telluride solar cells before (pictured above) and after (below) cadmium chloride treatment. The increased brightness after treatment indicates higher current collection at the grain boundaries.
A research team from ORNL, the University of Toledo and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory used electron microscopy and computational simulations to explore the physical origins of the unexplained treatment process. The results are published in Physical Review Letters (PRL).
Thin-film CdTe solar cells are considered a potential rival to silicon-based photovoltaic systems because of their theoretically low cost per power output and ease of fabrication. Their comparatively low historical efficiency in converting sunlight into energy, however, has limited the technology’s widespread use, especially for home systems.
Research in the 1980s showed that treating CdTe thin films with cadmium-chloride significantly raises the cell’s efficiency, but scientists have been unable to determine the underlying causes. ORNL’s Chen Li, first author on the PRL study, explains that the answer lay in investigating the material at an atomic level.
“We knew that chlorine was responsible for this magical effect, but we needed to find out where it went in the material’s structure,” Li said. “Only by understanding the structure can we understand what’s wrong in this solar cell -- why the efficiency is not high enough, and how can we push it further.”
By comparing the solar cells before and after chlorine treatment, the researchers realized that atom-scale grain boundaries were implicated in the enhanced performance. Grain boundaries are tiny defects that that normally act as roadblocks to efficiency, because they inhibit carrier collection which greatly reduces the solar cell power.
Using state of the art electron microscopy techniques to study the thin films’ structure and chemical composition after treatment, the researchers found that chlorine atoms replaced tellurium atoms within the grain boundaries. This atomic substitution creates local electric fields at the grain boundaries that boost the material’s photovoltaic performance instead of damaging it.
The research team’s finding, in addition to providing a long-awaited explanation, could be used to guide engineering of higher-efficiency CdTe solar cells. Controlling the grain boundary structure, says Li, is a new direction that could help raise the cell efficiencies closer to the theoretical maximum of 32 percent light-to-energy conversion. Currently, the record CdTe cell efficiency is only 20.4 percent.
“We think that if all the grain boundaries in a thin film material could be aligned in same direction, it could improve cell efficiency even further,” Li said.
The team’s research appears as “Grain-Boundary-Enhanced Carrier Collection in CdTe Solar Cells.” Coauthors are ORNL’s Chen Li, Jonathan Poplawsky, Mark Oxley and Andrew Lupini; University of Toledo’s Yelong Wu, Naba Paudel, Wanjian Yin and Yanfa Yan; University of Tennessee’s Stephen Pennycook; University of Manchester’s Sarah Haigh; University of Oxford’s Timothy Pennycook; and NREL’s Mowafak Al-Jassim. Li and Oxley hold joint appointments at Vanderbilt University.
The research was supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy through the SunShot Initiative and the Office of Basic Energy Sciences. The work was sponsored in part by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and through a user project supported by ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS). This research used resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. Yan acknowledges support from the Ohio Research Scholar Program.
CNMS is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, NSRCs, supported by the DOE Office of Science, as premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE's Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge and Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit http://science.energy.gov/bes/suf/user-facilities/nanoscale-science-research-centers/.
ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.
DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.
Morgan McCorkle | Eurek Alert!
Saving energy by taking a close look inside transistors
10.01.2019 | Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
Tandem Solar Cells – Record Efficiency for Silicon-based Multi-junction Solar Cell
08.01.2019 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Solare Energiesysteme ISE
The scientific and political community alike stress the importance of German Antarctic research
Joint Press Release from the BMBF and AWI
The Antarctic is a frigid continent south of the Antarctic Circle, where researchers are the only inhabitants. Despite the hostile conditions, here the Alfred...
World first experiments on sensor that may revolutionise everything from medical devices to unmanned vehicles
The new sensor - capable of detecting vibrations of living cells - may revolutionise everything from medical devices to unmanned vehicles.
Dead and alive at the same time? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have implemented Erwin Schrödinger’s paradoxical gedanken experiment employing an entangled atom-light state.
In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger formulated a thought experiment designed to capture the paradoxical nature of quantum physics. The crucial element of this gedanken...
Cellulose obtained from wood has amazing material properties. Empa researchers are now equipping the biodegradable material with additional functionalities to produce implants for cartilage diseases using 3D printing.
It all starts with an ear. Empa researcher Michael Hausmann removes the object shaped like a human ear from the 3D printer and explains:
The phenomenon of so-called superlubricity is known, but so far the explanation at the atomic level has been missing: for example, how does extremely low friction occur in bearings? Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institutes IWM and IWS jointly deciphered a universal mechanism of superlubricity for certain diamond-like carbon layers in combination with organic lubricants. Based on this knowledge, it is now possible to formulate design rules for supra lubricating layer-lubricant combinations. The results are presented in an article in Nature Communications, volume 10.
One of the most important prerequisites for sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility is minimizing friction. Research and industry have been dedicated...
16.01.2019 | Event News
14.01.2019 | Event News
12.12.2018 | Event News
18.01.2019 | Materials Sciences
18.01.2019 | Life Sciences
18.01.2019 | Health and Medicine