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Zinc oxide nanospears boost solar cell efficiency

Posted: 19 Aug 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:zinc oxide nanospear? solar cells? semiconductor? solid-state lighting?

Researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology claims to have developed a method to make more efficient solar cells. Jay Switzer and his colleagues at Missouri S&T report in the journal Chemistry of Materials that they have developed a simple, inexpensive process for growing, and precisely aligning, microscopic, spear-shaped zinc oxide crystals on a surface of single-crystal silicon. Aside from solar cells, these may be useful for UV lasers, solid-state lighting and piezoelectric devices.

"It's kind of like growing rock candy crystals on a string," says Switzer, the Donald L. Castleman/Foundation for Chemical Research Professor of Discovery at Missouri S&T. But instead of using sugar water and string, Switzer's team grows the zinc oxide "nanospears" on the single-crystal silicon placed in a beaker filled with an alkaline solution saturated with zinc ions. The process yields tilted, single-crystal, spear-shaped rods that grow out of the silicon surface, like tiny spikes.

The spears are about 100-200nm in diameterhundreds of times smaller than the width of a human hair and about 1?m in length. A nanometer is visible only with the aid of a high-power electron microscope, and some nanomaterials are only a few atoms in size.

Zinc oxide is a semiconductor that possesses some unusual physical properties, Switzer says. The material both absorbs and emits light, so it could be used in solar cells to absorb sunshine as well as in lasers or solid-state lighting as an emitter of light.

Silicon is also a semiconductor, but it absorbs light at a different part of the spectrum than zinc oxide. By growing zinc oxide on top of the silicon, "you're putting two semiconductors on top of each other," thereby widening the spectrum from which a solar cell could draw light, Switzer says.

"You can absorb more light and possibly get more power out," with a zinc oxide-silicon solar cell, he says.

This shows how zinc oxide "nanospears" (shown in red) grow from the surface of a silicon crystal.

Previous efforts to grow zinc oxide on silicon have been limited to expensive ultrahigh-vacuum methods, and because of silicon's high reactivity, it's been impossible to deposit the zinc oxide directly, without the use of a third material as a buffer. In addition, previous attempts to align the two materials epitaxiallyor perfectly one on top of the otherhave been unsuccessful until now. By tilting the nanospears 51, Switzer and his team have reduced the mismatch from 40 percent to just 0.2 percent, a near-perfect alignment.

Epitaxially aligning the zinc oxide and silicon is important to ensure higher efficiency, Switzer says.

The research is supported through a four-year, $700,000 grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Materials Sciences and Engineering Division. Switzer's co-authors for the paper are Guojun Mu and Rakesh V. Gudavarthy, both graduate students in the Chemistry Department at Missouri S&T, and Elizabeth Kulp, a postdoctoral associate at Missouri S&T.

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