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Carbon Nanotube Solar Cells

Photonics.com
Sep 2009
ITHACA, N.Y., Sept. 14, 2009 – Using a carbon nanotube instead of traditional silicon, Cornell University researchers have created the basic elements of a solar cell that they hope will lead to much more efficient ways of converting light to electricity than are now used in calculators and on rooftops.

The researchers fabricated, tested and measured a simple solar cell called a photodiode, formed from an individual carbon nanotube. The researchers, led by Paul McEuen, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, and Jiwoong Park, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, describe how their device converts light to electricity in an extremely efficient process that multiplies the amount of electrical current that flows. According to the team, this process could prove important for next-generation high-efficiency solar cells.

nanotube.jpg
When light is shined on a carbon nanotube-based photodiode, electrons (blue) and holes (red) – the positively charged areas where electrons were positioned before becoming excited – release their excess energy to efficiently create more electron-hole pairs. (Image: Nathan Gabor)

“We are not only looking at a new material, but we actually put it into an application – a true solar cell device,” said first author Nathan Gabor, a graduate student in McEuen’s lab.

The researchers used a single-walled carbon nanotube, which is essentially a rolled-up sheet of graphene, to create their solar cell. About the size of a DNA molecule, the nanotube was wired between two electrical contacts and close to two electrical gates, one negatively and one positively charged. Their work was inspired in part by previous research in which scientists created a diode, which is a simple transistor that allows current to flow in only one direction, using a single-walled nanotube. The Cornell team wanted to see what would happen if they built something similar, but this time shined light on it.

Shining lasers of various colors onto different areas of the nanotube, the investigators found that higher levels of photon energy had a multiplying effect on how much electrical current was produced.

Further study revealed that the narrow, cylindrical structure of the carbon nanotube caused the electrons to be neatly squeezed through one by one. The electrons moving through the nanotube became excited and created new electrons that continued to flow. The nanotube, they discovered, may be a nearly ideal photovoltaic cell because it allows electrons to create more electrons by utilizing the spare energy from the light.

This is unlike today’s solar cells, in which extra energy is lost in the form of heat, and the cells require constant external cooling.

Though they have made a device, scaling it up to be inexpensive and reliable would be a serious challenge for engineers, Gabor said.

“What we’ve observed is that the physics is there,” he said.

The research was supported by Cornell’s Center for Nanoscale Systems and the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility, both National Science Foundation facilities, as well as by the Microelectronics Advanced Research Corporation Focused Research Center on Materials, Structures and Devices. Research collaborators also included Zhaohui Zhong of the University of Michigan, and Ken Bosnick of the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta in Alberta, Canada.

For more information, visit: www.cornell.edu

GLOSSARY
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
Basic Sciencecarbon nanotubecarbon nanotube-based photodiodeCornell Universityelectronsenergygraphenegreen photonicsnanoNews & Featuresphotodiodephoton energyphotonicsphotovoltaicssilicon solar cells

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