Coated Nanowires Boost Photosensitivity

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 14, 2011 — By applying a coating to individual silicon nanowires, researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, have significantly improved the materials’ efficiency and sensitivity — a development that holds promise for photodetectors and energy harvesting applications such as solar cells.

Because of a large surface-to-volume ratio, nanowires typically suffer from a high surface recombination rate, meaning that photogenerated charges recombine rather than being collected at the terminals. The carrier lifetime of a basic nanowire is shortened by four to five orders of magnitude, reducing the material’s efficiency in applications such as solar cells to a few percent.

“Nanowires have the potential to offer high-energy conversion at low cost, yet their limited efficiency has held them back,” said Kenneth Crozier, associate professor of electrical engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

With this latest work, Crozier and his colleagues demonstrated what could be a promising solution. Making fine-precision measurements on single nanowires coated with an amorphous silicon layer, the team showed a dramatic reduction in the surface recombination.

A single nanowire coated with silicon boasted a ninetyfold increase in photosensitivity compared with an uncoated one. (Image: Ken Crozier, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)

Surface passivation has long been used to promote efficiency in silicon chips. Until now, surface passivation of nanowires has been explored far less.

The creation of the coating that passivated the surfaces of the nanowires was a happy accident. During preparation of a batch of single-crystal silicon nanowires, the scientists conjecture, the small gold particles used to grow the nanowires became depleted. As a result, they believe, the amorphous silicon coating was simply deposited onto the individual wires.

Instead of abandoning the batch, Crozier and his team tested it. Scanning photocurrent studies indicated, astoundingly, almost a hundredfold reduction in surface recombination. Overall, the coated wires boasted a ninetyfold increase in photosensitivity compared with uncoated ones.

A co-author of the study, published in Nano Letters, Yaping Dan — a postdoctoral fellow in Crozier’s lab who spearheaded the experiments — suggests that the reason for the increased efficiency is that the coating physically extends the broken atom bonds at the single-crystalline silicon surface. At the same time, the coating also may form a high–electric potential barrier at the interface, which confines the photogenerated charge carriers inside the single-crystalline silicon.

“As far as we know, scientists have not done these types of precision measurements of surface passivation at the level of single nanowires,” Crozier said. “Simply by putting a thin layer of amorphous silicon onto a crystalline silicon nanowire reduces the surface recombination nearly two orders of magnitude. We think the work will address some of the disadvantages of nanowires but keep their advantages.”

Because of their increased carrier lifetime, the researchers expect that their wires will offer higher energy conversion efficiency when used in solar cell devices.

The other co-authors were Kwanyong Seo and Jhim H. Meza, both of SEAS, and Kuniharu Takei and Ali Javey, both at the University of California, Berkeley. The authors acknowledge the support of Zena Technologies. Fabrication work was carried out at the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard, which is supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Published: July 2011
An SI prefix meaning one billionth (10-9). Nano can also be used to indicate the study of atoms, molecules and other structures and particles on the nanometer scale. Nano-optics (also referred to as nanophotonics), for example, is the study of how light and light-matter interactions behave on the nanometer scale. See nanophotonics.
That property of a material indicating that it will react when exposed to light energy.
Ali JaveyAmericasenergygreen photonicsHarvard UniversityJhim H. MezaKenneth CrozierKuniharu TakeiKwanyong SeonanophotosensitivityResearch & TechnologySensors & Detectorssilicon chipssilicon nanowiressolar cellssurface passivationsurface recombinationUniversity of California BerkeleyYaping DanZena Technologies

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