Carbon Nanotubes in Photovoltaics - Carbon Nanotube Composites in The Photoactive Layer

Carbon Nanotube Composites in The Photoactive Layer

Combining the physical and chemical characteristics of conjugated polymers with the high conductivity along the tube axis of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) provides a great deal of incentive to disperse CNTs into the photoactive layer in order to obtain more efficient OPV devices. The interpenetrating bulk donor–acceptor heterojunction in these devices can achieve charge separation and collection because of the existence of a bicontinuous network. Along this network, electrons and holes can travel toward their respective contacts through the electron acceptor and the polymer hole donor. Photovoltaic efficiency enhancement is proposed to be due to the introduction of internal polymer/nanotube junctions within the polymer matrix. The high electric field at these junctions can split up the excitons, while the single-walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) can act as a pathway for the electrons.

The dispersion of CNTs in a solution of an electron donating conjugated polymer is perhaps the most common strategy to implement CNT materials into OPVs. Generally poly(3-hexylthiophene) (P3HT) or poly(3-octylthiophene) (P3OT) are used for this purpose. These blends are then spin coated onto a transparent conductive electrode with thicknesses that vary from 60 to 120 nm. These conductive electrodes are usually glass covered with indium tin oxide (ITO) and a 40 nm sublayer of poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) (PEDOT) and poly(styrenesulfonate) (PSS). PEDOT and PSS help to smooth the ITO surface, decreasing the density of pinholes and stifling current leakage that occurs along shunting paths. Through thermal evaporation or sputter coating, a 20 to 70 nm thick layer of aluminum and sometimes an intermediate layer of lithium fluoride are then applied onto the photoactive material. Multiple research investigations with both multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) and single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) integrated into the photoactive material have been completed.

Enhancements of more than two orders of magnitude have been observed in the photocurrent from adding SWCNTs to the P3OT matrix. Improvements were speculated to be due to charge separation at polymer–SWCNT connections and more efficient electron transport through the SWCNTs. However, a rather low power conversion efficiency of 0.04% under 100 mW/cm2 white illumination was observed for the device suggesting incomplete exciton dissociation at low CNT concentrations of 1.0% wt. Because the lengths of the SWCNTs were similar to the thickness of photovoltaic films, doping a higher percentage of SWCNTs into the polymer matrix was believed to cause short circuits. To supply additional dissociation sites, other researchers have physically blended functionalized MWCNTs into P3HT polymer to create a P3HT-MWCNT with fullerene C60 double-layered device. However, the power efficiency was still relatively low at 0.01% under 100 mW/cm2 white illumination. Weak exciton diffusion toward the donor–acceptor interface in the bilayer structure may have been the cause in addition to the fullerene C60 layer possibly experiencing poor electron transport.

More recently, a polymer photovoltaic device from C60-modified SWCNTs and P3HT has been fabricated. Microwave irradiating a mixture of aqueous SWCNT solution and C60 solution in toluene was the first step in making these polymer-SWCNT composites. Conjugated polymer P3HT was then added resulting in a power conversion efficiency of 0.57% under simulated solar irradiation (95 mW/cm2). It was concluded that improved short circuit current density was a direct result of the addition of SWCNTs into the composite causing faster electron transport via the network of SWCNTs. It was also concluded that the morphology change led to an improved the fill factor. Overall, the main result was improved power conversion efficiency with the addition of SWCNTs, compared to cells without SWCNTs; however, further optimization was thought to be possible.

Additionally, it has been found that heating to the point beyond the glass transition temperature of either P3HT or P3OT after construction can be beneficial for manipulating the phase separation of the blend. This heating also affects the ordering of the polymeric chains because the polymers are microcrystalline systems and it improves charge transfer, charge transport, and charge collection throughout the OPV device. The hole mobility and power efficiency of the polymer-CNT device also increased significantly as a result of this ordering.

Emerging as another valuable approach for deposition, the use of tetraoctylammonium bromide in tetrahydrofuran has also been the subject of investigation to assist in suspension by exposing SWCNTs to an electrophoretic field. In fact, photoconversion efficiencies of 1.5% and 1.3% were achieved when SWCNTs were deposited in combination with light harvesting cadmium sulfide (CdS) quantum dots and porphyrins, respectively.

Among the best power conversions achieved to date using CNTs were obtained by depositing a SWCNT layer between the ITO and the PEDOT : PSS or between the PEDOT : PSS and the photoactive blend in a modified ITO/PEDOT : PSS/ P3HT : (6,6)-phenyl-C61-butyric acid methyl ester (PCBM)/Al solar cell. By dip-coating from a hydrophilic suspension, SWCNT were deposited after an initially exposing the surface to an argon plasma to achieve a power conversion efficiency of 4.9%, compared to 4% without CNTs.

However, even though CNTs have shown potential in the photoactive layer, they have not resulted in a solar cell with a power conversion efficiency greater than the best tandem organic cells (6.5% efficiency). But, it has been shown in most of the previous investigations that the control over a uniform blending of the electron donating conjugated polymer and the electron accepting CNT is one of the most difficult as well as crucial aspects in creating efficient photocurrent collection in CNT-based OPV devices. Therefore, using CNTs in the photoactive layer of OPV devices is still in the initial research stages and there is still room for novel methods to better take advantage of the beneficial properties of CNTs.

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