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Spring 2017

Teaching Perovskites to Swim

A two-component layer protects a sunlight-harvesting device from water and heat

Rebecca Palmer

The perovskite device is made of different layers, each of which has a specific function. Together, the titanium dioxide and PC61BM layers protect the perovskite from heat and water. Image: Rebecca Palmer, ANSER EFRC

Harvesting sunlight and using it to power our homes and devices is a reality today. Generally, most commercial solar cells are made of silicon. However, as highlighted previously, a type of material called perovskite halides are a potential competitor of silicon. Unfortunately, most perovskite halides are sensitive to moisture and high temperatures such that exposure to either will quickly degrade these materials — rendering them useless. Researchers at the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER) have developed a way to protect perovskites from water and stabilize them against heat. By carefully growing an ultrathin layer of metal oxide on a carbon coating, the researchers made a perovskite device that worked even after dousing the device with a stream of water.

Solar cells are made up of layers, each with a specific duty. The perovskite layer absorbs sunlight, which can excite an electron. The electron could go right back to where it started, unless it can be extracted out of the absorbing layer quickly. For this device, the researchers placed a layer of PC61BM, a carbon-based material, on top of the perovskite, which has two roles. First, PC61BM is good at extracting electrons once they are excited by sunlight. Second, the PC61BM layer protects the perovskite from water vapor, which is one of the reactants used for forming the final protective coating  — titanium dioxide.

The titanium dioxide layer was grown using atomic layer deposition (ALD), a method that deposits alternating layers of titanium and oxygen atoms. The researchers demonstrated that depositing the titanium dioxide by ALD creates a barrier with no pinholes, effectively blocking moisture from entering the film. Only about 20 nanometers of titanium dioxide on the PC61BM were needed to protect the perovskite. This layer is around 1,000 times thinner than the thickness of a human hair.

On top of the titanium dioxide, aluminum electrodes were deposited and protected by a thin layer of gold. On the opposite side of the perovskite, the team placed a nickel oxide layer that is good at extracting the positively charged holes left by the electrons. Glass, coated with a conductive film, is used as a support that allows light to pass through and a circuit to be formed.

The device held up to pure water and a temperature of 100 °C (around 200 °F) thanks to the titanium dioxide layer. In Soo Kim, a postdoctoral fellow and lead researcher, explained that he was excited about this result. “The key challenge to commercialization of any halide perovskite-based devices is the environmental stability.”

Many people have been studying perovskite halides, but the stability under real-world environmental situations has been largely overlooked. Kim's work is one of the first examples of protecting perovskite from liquid water with an ultrathin metal oxide layer. Alex Martinson, who directed the work, said, “It is surprising when something simple works so well.”

Martinson explained that perovskite solar cells have a lot of promise because they have the potential to be cheaper than the current commercial devices, such as silicon. The silicon manufacturing process is energy intensive, and silicon materials are required to be highly pure. In contrast, there are many pathways to make perovskites, and the performance of perovskite devices are less sensitive to impurities. Scientists at ANSER are excited to continue to explore what perovskites can do. Enabling these devices to withstand water and heat is a big step towards being able to buy a perovskite device at a local hardware store.

Acknowledgments

This work was supported as part of the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. This work made use of the Pulsed Laser Deposition Shared Facility at the Materials Research Center at Northwestern University supported by the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program. D.H.C. acknowledges support from the Link Foundation through the Link Foundation Energy Fellowship Program. Use of the Center for Nanoscale Materials, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science user facility, was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

More Information

Kim IS, DH Cao, DB Buchholz, JD Emery, OK Farha, JT Hupp, MG Kanatzidis, and ABF Martinson. 2016. "Liquid Water- and Heat-Resistant Hybrid Perovskite Photovoltaics via an Inverted ALD Oxide Electron Extraction Layer Design." Nano Letters 16(12):7786-7790. DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03989

About the author(s):

  • Rebecca Palmer is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She is part of the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER). She studies mixed metal oxides deposited on a porous support and investigates these materials’ ability to oxidize water.

From Shrinking Violet to Solar Panel

Scientists overcome promising solar panel material’s failure under hot, wet conditions

Together, two simple layers protect promising materials called perovskites from water and heat, allowing the material to turn sunlight into electricity. Image: Nathan Johnson, Pacific Northwest National Lab

Solar panels have to work even when it is hot and humid. That’s a problem for a promising group of materials called halide perovskites. Perovskites could lead to solar panels that are cheaper and more effective than today’s silicon-based panels. The challenge is that perovskites stop working when exposed to high temperatures and humidity. Researchers at the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center (ANSER) developed a new approach that protects the perovskites. On top of a carbon-based material that helps move the electrons — which gather up and become the electrical current — they added an ultrathin layer of titanium dioxide. Together, the layers let the perovskite solar device work even after scientists doused it with water. Creating more robust perovskite devices could change our energy landscape. ANSER is an Energy Frontier Research Center headquartered at Northwestern University.

More Information

Kim IS, DH Cao, DB Buchholz, JD Emery, OK Farha, JT Hupp, MG Kanatzidis, and ABF Martinson. 2016. "Liquid Water- and Heat-Resistant Hybrid Perovskite Photovoltaics via an Inverted ALD Oxide Electron Extraction Layer Design." Nano Letters 16(12):7786-7790. DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03989

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.