The journal Nature Photonics reports that researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and UCLA's California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI) have significantly enhanced polymer solar cells' performance. They have used a device with a new "tandem" structure that combines multiple cells with different absorption bands. The device had a certified power-conversion efficiency of 8.62% and set a world record in July 2011.
In the effort to convert sunlight into electricity, PV solar cells that use conductive organic polymers for light absorption and conversion have shown great potential. Organic polymers can be produced in high volumes at low cost, resulting in PV devices that are cheap, lightweight and flexible.
The researchers incorporated a new infrared-absorbing polymer material provided by Sumitomo Chemical of Japan into the device, the device's architecture proved to be widely applicable and the power-conversion efficiency jumped to 10.6% — a new record — as certified by the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
By using cells with different absorption bands, tandem solar cells provide an effective way to harvest a broader spectrum of solar radiation. However, the efficiency doesn't automatically increase by simply combining two cells. The materials for the tandem cells have to be compatible with each other for efficient light harvesting, the researchers said.
Until now, the performance of tandem devices lagged behind single-layer solar cells, mainly due to this lack of suitable polymer materials. UCLA Engineering researchers have demonstrated highly efficient single-layer and tandem polymer solar cells featuring a low-band-gap–conjugated polymer specially designed for the tandem structure. The band gap determines the portion of the solar spectrum a polymer absorbs.
"Envision a double-decker bus," said Yang Yang, a professor of materials science and engineering at UCLA Engineering and principal investigator on the research. "The bus can carry a certain number of passengers on one deck, but if you were to add a second deck, you could hold many more people for the same amount of space. That's what we've done here with the tandem polymer solar cell."
"The solar spectra is very broad and covers the visible as well as the invisible, the infrared and the UV," said Shuji Doi, research group manager for Sumitomo Chemical. "We are very excited that Sumitomo's low–band gap polymer has contributed to the new record efficiency."
"We have been doing research in tandem solar cells for a much shorter length of time than in the single-junction devices," said Gang Li, a member of the research faculty at UCLA Engineering and a co-author of the Nature Photonics paper. "For us to achieve such success in improving the efficiency in this short time period truly demonstrates the great potential of tandem solar cell technology."
"Everything is done by a very low-cost wet-coating process," Yang said. "As this process is compatible with current manufacturing, I anticipate this technology will become commercially viable in the near future."
This study opens up a new direction for polymer chemists to pursue designs of new materials for tandem polymer solar cells. Furthermore, it indicates an important step towards the commercialization of polymer solar cells. Yang said his team hopes to reach 15% efficiency in the next few years.
The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the US Office of Naval Research and the US Department of Energy, together with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.