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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Study Shows Why Organic Solar Cells Are Degrading So Fast

  • A group of international scientists has researched why organic solar cells are degrading so fast.
  • Due to their unique properties, organic solar cells can be used in a wide range of applications for which traditional silicon photovoltaics aren’t suitable.
  • Organic solar cells have a hard time staying stable in direct sunlight, but this new study may be a first step in improving them
Solar

University of Cambridge scientists have now revealed an important reason why organic solar cells rapidly degrade in outdoor operation. Organic solar cells show great promise for clean energy applications. However, photovoltaic modules made from organic semiconductors do not maintain their efficiency for long enough under sunlight for real world applications.

The reporting paper has been published in the journal Joule.

The new insight will drive the design of more stable materials for organic semiconductor-based photovoltaics, thus enabling cheap and renewable electricity generation.

Due to the recent improvements in the efficiency with which solar cells made from organic (carbon-based) semiconductors can convert sunlight into electricity, improving the long-term stability of these photovoltaic devices is becoming an increasingly important topic.

Real-world applications of the technology demand that the efficiency of the photovoltaic device be maintained for many years. To address this key problem, researchers have studied the degradation mechanisms for the two components used in the light-absorbing layer of organic solar cells: the ‘electron donor’ and ‘electron acceptor’ materials. These two components are needed to split the bound electron-hole pair formed after the absorption of a photon into the free electrons and holes that constitute electrical current.

The image shows the progression of events as an organic solar cell degrades from exposure. The research shows what problem the team discovered and how the design can be improved. Image Credit: University of Cambridge. For more information click the research report paper published in Joule. At posting the paper is open access, without a paywall.

In this new study an international team of researchers led by the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, have for the first time considered the degradation pathways of both the electron donor and electron acceptor materials. The detailed investigation of the electron donor material sets the current research work apart from the previous studies and provides important new insights for the field.

Specifically, the identification of an ultrafast deactivation process unique to the electron donor material has not been observed before and provides a new angle to consider material degradation in organic solar cells.

To understand how these materials degraded, the Cavendish researchers worked as part of an international team with scientists in the UK, Belgium, and Italy. Together, they combined photovoltaic device stability studies, where the operational solar cell is subject to intense light that closely matches sunlight, with ultrafast laser spectroscopy performed in Cambridge.

Through this laser technique, they have been able to identify a new degradation mechanism in the electron donor material involving twisting in the polymer chain. As a result, when the twisted polymer absorbs a photon, it undergoes an extremely rapid deactivation pathway on femtosecond timescales (a millionth billionth of a second). This undesirable process is fast enough to outcompete the generation of free electrons and holes from a photon, which the scientists were able to correlate with the reduced efficiency of the organic solar cell after it had been exposed to simulated sunlight.

Dr. Alex Gillett, the lead author of the paper remarked, “It was interesting to find that something as seemingly minor as the twisting of a polymer chain could have such a large effect on the solar cell efficiency. In the future, we plan to build on our findings by collaborating with chemistry groups to design new electron donor materials with more rigid polymer backbones. We hope that this will reduce the propensity of the polymer to twist and thus improve the stability of the organic solar cell device.”

Due to their unique properties, organic solar cells can be used in a wide range of applications for which traditional silicon photovoltaics aren’t suitable. This could include electricity generating windows for greenhouses that transmit the colors of light required for photosynthesis, or even photovoltaics that could be rolled up for easy transportation and mobile electricity generation. Thus, by identifying the degradation mechanism that needs to be solved, the current research directly brings the next generation of photovoltaic materials and applications closer to reality.

***

Organic solar has much more potential than as noted in the final paragraph. And the problem of longevity has been a bug now for years. One hopes this is a massive improvement and it just might be, but organics have a hard time staying stable in direct sunlight, so this might be the first solution of many that could be out there.

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Yet this work shows that the interest in research is coming up with answers. Considering that organic cells offer such a wide range of opportunities with lower costs there is every reason to think that the progress will continue.

Lets hope this team’s work is a “giant leap” forward and that congratulations are sent with high hopes for more progress.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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