U of Minnesota: Discovery of new transparent thin film material – Less Costly than Indium – Could lead to smaller, faster, more powerful electronics, improve solar cells


U of Minn ThinFilm Solar 5-discoveryofnA team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, have discovered a new nano-scale thin film material with the highest-ever conductivity in its class.  Credit: University of Minnesota

A team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, have discovered a new nano-scale thin film material with the highest-ever conductivity in its class. The new material could lead to smaller, faster, and more powerful electronics, as well as more efficient solar cells.

The discovery is being published today in Nature Communications, an open access journal that publishes high-quality research from all areas of the natural sciences.

Researchers say that what makes this new material so unique is that it has a high conductivity, which helps electronics conduct more electricity and become more powerful. But the material also has a wide bandgap, which means light can easily pass through the material making it optically transparent. In most cases, materials with wide bandgap, usually have either low conductivity or poor transparency.

“The high conductivity and wide bandgap make this an ideal material for making optically transparent conducting films which could be used in a wide variety of electronic devices, including , electronic displays, touchscreens and even in which light needs to pass through the device,” said Bharat Jalan, a University of Minnesota chemical engineering and materials science professor and the lead researcher on the study.

Currently, most of the in our electronics use a chemical element called indium. The price of indium has gone up tremendously in the past few years significantly adding to the cost of current display technology. As a result, there has been tremendous effort to find alternative materials that work as well, or even better, than indium-based transparent conductors.

In this study, researchers found a solution. They developed a new transparent conducting thin film using a novel synthesis method, in which they grew a BaSnO3 thin film (a combination of barium, tin and oxygen, called barium stannate), but replaced elemental tin source with a chemical precursor of tin. The chemical precursor of tin has unique, radical properties that enhanced the chemical reactivity and greatly improved the metal oxide formation process. Both barium and tin are significantly cheaper than indium and are abundantly available.

“We were quite surprised at how well this unconventional approach worked the very first time we used the tin chemical precursor,” said University of Minnesota engineering and materials science graduate student Abhinav Prakash, the first author of the paper. “It was a big risk, but it was quite a big breakthrough for us.”

Jalan and Prakash said this new process allowed them to create this material with unprecedented control over thickness, composition, and defect concentration and that this process should be highly suitable for a number of other material systems where the element is hard to oxidize. The new process is also reproducible and scalable.

They further added that it was the structurally superior quality with improved defect concentration that allowed them to discover high conductivity in the material. They said the next step is to continue to reduce the defects at the atomic scale.

“Even though this material has the highest within the same class, there is much room for improvement in addition, to the outstanding potential for discovering new physics if we decrease the defects. That’s our next goal,” Jalan said.

Explore further: See-through circuitry: New and cheap alternative for transparent electronics

More information: Abhinav Prakash et al, Wide bandgap BaSnO3 films with room temperature conductivity exceeding 104 S cm−1, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15167

 

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MIT Analysis: Solar Photovoltaic Power “One of Few” LC Renewables” that are both Scalable and Technologically Ready to Meet Global Demand


MIT-FuturePV-01x250(From R & D Magazine)  Use of solar photovoltaics has been growing at a phenomenal rate: Worldwide installed capacity has seen sustained growth averaging 43% per year since 2000. To evaluate the prospects for sustaining such growth, the MIT researchers look at possible constraints on materials availability, and propose a system for evaluating the many competing approaches to improved solar-cell performance.

In a broad new assessment of the status and prospects of solar photovoltaic technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers say that it is “one of the few renewable, low-carbon resources with both the scalability and the technological maturity to meet ever-growing global demand for electricity.”

The analysis is presented in Energy & Environmental Science; a broader analysis of solar technology, economics and policy will be incorporated in a forthcoming assessment of the future of solar energy by the MIT Energy Initiative.

The team comprised MIT professors Vladimir Bulović, Tonio Buonassisi and Robert Jaffe, and graduate students Joel Jean and Patrick Brown. One useful factor in making meaningful comparisons among new photovoltaic technologies, they conclude, is the complexity of the light-absorbing material.

The report divides the many technologies under development into three broad classes: wafer-based cells, which include traditional crystalline silicon, as well as alternatives such as gallium arsenide; commercial thin-film cells, including cadmium telluride and amorphous silicon; and emerging thin-film technologies, which include perovskites, organic materials, dye-sensitized solar cells and quantum dots.

MIT-FuturePV-01x250

Illustration shows the MIT team’s proposed scheme for comparing different photovoltaic materials, based on the complexity of their basic molecular structure. The complexity increases from the simplest material, pure silicon (single atom, lower left), to the most complex material currently being studied for potential solar cells, quantum dots (molecular structure at top right). Materials shown in between include gallium aresenide, perovskite and dye-sensitized solar cells. Image courtesy of the researchers.

With the recent evolution of solar technology, says Jean, the paper’s lead author, it’s important to have a uniform framework for assessment. It may be time, he says, to re-examine the traditional classification of these technologies, generally into three areas: silicon wafer-based cells, thin-film cells and “exotic” technologies with high theoretical efficiencies.

“We’d like to build on the conventional framework,” says Jean, a doctoral student in MIT’s Dept. of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We’re seeking a more consistent way to think about the wide range of current photovoltaic technologies and to evaluate them for potential applications. In this study, we chose to evaluate all relevant technologies based on their material complexity.”

Under this scheme, traditional silicon—a single-element crystalline material—is the simplest material. While crystalline silicon is a mature technology with advantages including high efficiency, proven reliability and no material scarcity constraints, it also has inherent limitations: Silicon is not especially efficient at absorbing light, and solar panels based on silicon cells tend to be rigid and heavy. At the other end of the spectrum are perovskites, organics and colloidal quantum dots, which are “highly complex materials, but can be much simpler to process,” Jean says.

The authors make clear that their definition of material complexity as a key parameter for comparison does not imply any equivalency with complexity of manufacturing. On the contrary, while silicon is the simplest solar-cell material, silicon wafer and cell production is complex and expensive, requiring extraordinary purity and high temperatures.

By contrast, while some complex nanomaterials involve intricate molecular structures, such materials can be deposited quickly and at low temperatures onto flexible substrates. Nanomaterial-based cells could even be transparent to visible light, which could open up new applications and enable seamless integration into windows and other surfaces. The authors caution, however, that the conversion efficiency and long-term stability of these complex emerging technologies is still relatively low. As they write in the paper: “The road to broad acceptance of these new technologies in conventional solar markets is inevitably long, although the unique qualities of these evolving solar technologies—lightweight, paper-thin, transparent—could open entirely new markets, accelerating their adoption.”

The study does caution that the large-scale deployment of some of today’s thin-film technologies, such as cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide, may be severely constrained by the amount of rare materials that they require. The study highlights the need for novel thin-film technologies that are based on Earth-abundant materials.

The study identifies three themes for future research and development. The first is increasing the power-conversion efficiency of emerging photovoltaic technologies and commercial modules.

A second research theme is reducing the amount of material needed per cell. Thinner, more flexible films and substrates could reduce cell weight and cost, potentially opening the door to new approaches to photovoltaic module design.

A third important research theme is reducing the complexity and cost of manufacturing. Here the researchers emphasize the importance of eliminating expensive, high-temperature processing, and encouraging the adoption of roll-to-roll coating processes for rapid, large-scale manufacturing of emerging thin-film technologies.

“We’ve looked at a number of key metrics for different applications,” Jean says. “We don’t want to rule out any of the technologies,” he says—but by providing a unified framework for comparison, he says, the researchers hope to make it easier for people to make decisions about the best technologies for a given application.

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology