Transparent carbon nanotubes for cheap, flexible solar cells

October 3, 2011

The cover of the October 2011 issue of Advanced Energy Materials features a series of electronic-type-sorted, single-walled carbon nanotubes suspended in solution. The rays of light emanating from behind the samples is suggestive of the solar energy that these materials help capture in organic photovoltaic cells. (Credit: Advanced Energy Materials)

Researchers from Northwestern University have developed a transparent conductor made of carbon nanotubes that could improve the performance of solar cells and provide an alternative to mechanically brittle solar technology that is reliant on a relatively rare material.

Earth, of course, contains an abundance of carbon, making carbon nanotubes a cost-efficient option as demand for solar technology increases.

Also, carbon nanotubes’ mechanical flexibility could allow solar cells to be integrated into fabrics and clothing, enabling portable energy supplies that could impact everything from personal electronics to military operations.

Current limitations of solar cells

Solar cells are composed of several layers, including a transparent conductor layer that allows light to pass into the cell and electricity to pass out; for both of these actions to occur, the conductor must be both electrically conductive and also optically transparent — concurrent properties that few materials possess.

Currently, indium tin oxide is the dominant material used in transparent conductor applications, but the material has two potential limitations. Indium tin oxide is mechanically brittle, which precludes its use in applications that require mechanical flexibility. In addition, indium tin oxide relies on the relatively rare element indium, so the projected increased demand for solar cells could push the price of indium to problematically high levels.

“If solar technology really becomes widespread, as everyone hopes it will, we will likely have a crisis in the supply of indium,” said Mark C. Hersam, professor of materials science and engineering and professor of chemistry. “There’s a great desire to identify materials — especially earth-abundant elements like carbon — that can take indium’s place in solar technology.”

A transparent, conductive carbon-nanotube solution

The researchers have created an alternative to indium tin oxide using single-walled carbon nanotubes — tiny, hollow cylinders of carbon just 1 nanometer in diameter.

The researchers have gone further to determine the type of nanotube that is most effective in transparent conductors. Nanotubes’ properties vary depending on their diameter and their chiral angle, the angle that describes the arrangement of carbon atoms along the length of the nanotube. These properties determine two types of nanotubes: metallic and semiconducting.

Metallic nanotubes, the researchers found, are 50 times more effective than semiconducting ones when used as transparent conductors in organic solar cells. “We have now identified precisely the type of carbon nanotube that should be used in this application,” Hersam said.

Because carbon nanotubes are flexible, as opposed to brittle indium tin oxide, the researchers’ findings could pave the way for many new applications in solar cells, they said. For example, the military could incorporate the flexible solar cells into tent material to provide solar power directly to soldiers in the field, or the cells could be integrated into clothing, backpacks, or purses for wearable electronics.

“With this mechanically flexible technology, it’s much easier to imagine integrating solar technology into everyday life, rather than carrying around a large, inflexible solar cell,” Hersam said.

The researchers are now examining other layers of the solar cell to explore also replacing these with carbon-based nanomaterials.

Ref.: Timothy P. Tyler, et al., Organic Solar Cell Characterization: Electronically Monodisperse Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube Thin Films as Transparent Conducting Anodes in Organic Photovoltaic Devices, Advanced Energy Materials, 2011; [DOI:10.1002/aenm.201190021]