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Press Release | Argonne National Laboratory

Scientists detect residue that has hindered efficiency of promising type of solar cell

Drivers who have ever noticed a residue on their windshields after going through a car wash will sympathize with nanoscientist Seth Darling’s pain.

LEMONT, Ill. – Darling and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have worked for years to develop a new type of solar cell known as organic photovoltaics (OPVs). Because of their potential to reduce costs for both fabrication and materials, OPVs could be much cheaper to manufacture than conventional solar cells and have a smaller environmental impact as well.

The major drawback of OPVs, however, is they aren’t as efficient as conventional solar cells. In a new study, Darling and his colleagues at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and Advanced Photon Source (APS) were able to detect for the first time a major contributing factor to this limitation: trace residues of catalyst material left over from the development process prevent the OPVs from converting the maximum amount of sunlight to electricity.

Scientists have recently become aware that impurities can cause problems in these nanostructured materials, but until now, we didn’t have a way of actually being able to see that the impurities were even there,” Darling said. 

Although many previously used techniques lacked the ability to identify the presence of a remaining catalyst, Argonne physicists Barry Lai and Jörg Maser were able to get a clear picture of the impurities by using a technique called X-ray fluorescence, which involves high-intensity X-rays from the APS.

The way we looked for the impurities in the material was very similar to the way police officers use a black light to look for traces of evidence that might otherwise escape a first glance,” Darling said. And having a powerful X-ray synchrotron machine like the APS enables us to see with extreme sensitivity and fine detail.”

The residual impurities impede the performance of the solar cell because they tend to trap” the electrical charges that the solar cell generates after it is hit by a photon. The metal atoms involved in the development process – specifically palladium – cause the trapping effect.

The next step for the research involves looking at ways to remedy or prevent the trapping, but in the meantime, chemists and manufacturers of organic solar cell materials have already begun to take note and pay attention to the quantity of residual catalyst left behind in their products.

According to Darling, researchers had been aware for some time of an analogous problem in organic light-emitting devices, which work on the reverse principle of solar cells – rather than converting light to electricity, they convert electricity to light. It’s actually a bit surprising that scientists didn’t recognize that this problem could also occur in solar cells until relatively recently,” Darling said.

The results of the research are published in an article titled Detection and role of trace impurities in high-performance organic solar cells” in the May 2013 issue of Energy and Environmental Science.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs), premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale, supported by the DOE Office of Science.  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.