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Microwave Chemistry Zaps Solar Cells

A microwave experiment with phosphorus has opened the way to more affordable and effective super-thin solar cells.

Flinders University nanotechnology researchers made flakes of phosphorene, a 2D form of phosphorus only a few atoms thick, that could not only boost the energy capacity of popular dye-sensitised solar cells but potentially remove the need for the expensive component platinum. Dye-sensitised solar cells are an emerging field of thin-film, semi-flexible and semi-transparent solar cells that are simple to make but limited by quite costly components such as platinum and ruthenium.

While solar cells based on carbon nanotubes and silicon are cheaper and easier to manufacture than crystalline silicon cells, one challenge with these new solar cells is to boost their ability to convert sunlight into electricity effectively. The Flinders researchers, led by Prof Joseph Shapter, found that the inclusion of a layer of ultra-thin nanoflakes of phosphorene in these solar cells increased their photovoltaic efficiency to 8.31%, which outperforms more expensive platinum-based cells.

The microwave method involves immersing phosphorus in a special liquid and exposing it to microwaves for 10 minutes. In contrast, existing protocols involve 15 hours of heating.

In the second study, the team again used the microwave method to make phosphorene flakes and then added them to carbon nanotube–silicon solar cells and measured a significant improvement in the cells’ power conversion.

“With these promising early results, further studies with the microwave technique and other solvents will help improve stability and durability of phosphorene and allow us to look at ways to produce larger amounts of phosphorene for possible commercial applications,” says co-author Dr Christopher Gibson of the Flinders College of Science and Engineering.

The microwave experiments and potential applications in the solar industry have been published in Angewandte Chemie, Advanced Function Materials and Small Methods.