Organic solar cells have long been touted as lightweight, low-cost alternatives to rigid solar panels made of silicon. Dramatic improvements in the efficiency of organic photovoltaics have been made in recent years, yet the fundamental question of how these devices convert sunlight into electricity is still hotly debated.
Now a Stanford University research team is weighing in on the controversy. Their findings, published in the Nov. 17 issue of the journal Nature Materials, indicate that the predominant working theory is incorrect, and could steer future efforts to design materials that boost the performance of organic cells.
"We know that organic photovoltaics are very good," said study coauthor Michael McGehee, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford. "The question is, why are they so good? The answer is controversial."
A typical organic solar cell consists of two semiconducting layers made of plastic polymers and other flexible materials. The cell generates electricity by absorbing particles of light, or photons.
When the cell absorbs light, a photon knocks out an electron in a polymer atom, leaving behind an empty space, which scientists refer to as a hole. The electron and the hole immediately form a bonded pair called an exciton. The exciton splits, allowing the electron to move independently to a hole created by another absorbed photon. This continuous movement of electrons from hole to hole produces an electric current.
In the study, the Stanford team addressed a long-standing debate over what causes the exciton to split.
"To generate a current, you have to separate the electron and the hole," said senior author Alberto Salleo, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford. "That requires two different semiconducting materials. If the electron is attracted to material B more than material A, it drops into material B. In theory, the electron sh
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