A unique solar panel design made with a new ceramic material points the way to potentially providing sustainable power cheaper, more efficiently, and requiring less manufacturing time. It also reaches a four-decade-old goal of discovering a bulk photovoltaic material that can harness energy from visible and infrared light, not just ultraviolet light.
Scaling up this new design from its tablet-size prototype to a full-size solar panel would be a large step toward making solar power affordable compared with other means of producing electricity.
Ref: Perovskite oxides for visible-light-absorbing ferroelectric and photovoltaic materials. Nature (28 November 2013) | DOI: 10.1038/nature12622
Ferroelectrics have recently attracted attention as a candidate class of materials for use in photovoltaic devices, and for the coupling of light absorption with other functional properties. In these materials, the strong inversion symmetry breaking that is due to spontaneous electric polarization promotes the desirable separation of photo-excited carriers and allows voltages higher than the bandgap, which may enable efficiencies beyond the maximum possible in a conventional p–n junction solar cell. Ferroelectric oxides are also stable in a wide range of mechanical, chemical and thermal conditions and can be fabricated using low-cost methods such as sol–gel thin-film deposition and sputtering. Recent work has shown how a decrease in ferroelectric layer thickness and judicious engineering of domain structures and ferroelectric–electrode interfaces can greatly increase the current harvested from ferroelectric absorber materials, increasing the power conversion efficiency from about 10−4 to about 0.5 per cent. Further improvements in photovoltaic efficiency have been inhibited by the wide bandgaps (2.7–4 electronvolts) of ferroelectric oxides, which allow the use of only 8–20 per cent of the solar spectrum. Here we describe a family of single-phase solid oxide solutions made from low-cost and non-toxic elements using conventional solid-state methods: [KNbO3]1 − x[BaNi1/2Nb1/2O3 − δ]x (KBNNO). These oxides exhibit both ferroelectricity and a wide variation of direct bandgaps in the range 1.1–3.8 electronvolts. In particular, the x = 0.1 composition is polar at room temperature, has a direct bandgap of 1.39 electronvolts and has a photocurrent density approximately 50 times larger than that of the classic ferroelectric (Pb,La)(Zr,Ti)O3 material. The ability of KBNNO to absorb three to six times more solar energy than the current ferroelectric materials suggests a route to viable ferroelectric semiconductor-based cells for solar energy conversion and other applications.