Lighter, more flexible, and cheaper than conventional solar-cell materials, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have long shown promise for photovoltaics. But research stalled when CNTs proved to be inefficient, converting far less sunlight into power than other methods.
Now a research team led by Mark Hersam, professor of materials science and engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University, has created a new type of CNT solar cell that is twice as efficient as its predecessors. It is also the first CNT solar cell to have its performance certified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“The field had been hovering around 1 percent efficiency for about a decade; it had really plateaued,.” Hersam said. “But we’ve been able to increase it to over 3 percent. It’s a significant jump”
“The problem is that each nanotube chirality only absorbs a narrow range of optical wavelengths,” Hersam said. “If you make a solar cell out of a single chirality carbon nanotube, you basically throw away most of the solar light.”
Hersam’s team made a mixture of polychiral, or multiple chirality, semiconducting nanotubes. This maximized the amount of photocurrent produced by absorbing a broader range of solar-spectrum wavelengths. The cells significantly absorbed near-infrared wavelengths, a range that has been inaccessible to many leading thin-film technologies.
The research is described in the article “Polychiral Semiconducting Carbon Nanotube-Fullerene Solar Cells” in the August 7 issue of Nano Letters.