Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have discovered an important factor that limits the efficiency of perovskite solar cells.

Various possible defects in the lattice of hybrid perovskites had previously been considered as the potential cause of such limitations, but it was assumed that the organic molecules would remain intact. The team has now revealed that missing hydrogen atoms in these molecules can cause massive efficiency losses.

A number of research teams have been studying such defects, among them the group of UCSB materials professor Chris Van de Walle, which recently discovered a defect in a surprising place: on the organic molecule.

“Methylammonium lead iodide is the prototypical hybrid perovskite,” explained Xie Zhang, lead researcher on the project. “We found that it is surprisingly easy to break one of the bonds and remove a hydrogen atom on the methylammonium molecule. The resulting ‘hydrogen vacancy’ then acts as a sink for the electric charges that move through the crystal after being generated by light falling on the solar cell. When these charges get caught at the vacancy, they can no longer do useful work, such as charging a battery or powering a motor, hence the loss in efficiency.”

The research was enabled by advanced computational techniques developed by the Van de Walle group. Such state-of-the-art calculations provide detailed information about the quantum-mechanical behavior of electrons in the material. Mark Turiansky, a senior graduate student in Van de Walle’s group who was involved in the research, helped build sophisticated approaches for turning this information into quantitative values for rates of charge carrier trapping.

“Our group has created powerful methods for determining which processes cause efficiency loss,” Turiansky said, “and it is gratifying to see the approach provide such valuable insights for an important class of materials.”



“The computations act as a theoretical microscope that allows us to peer into the material with much higher resolution than can be achieved experimentally,” Van de Walle explained. “They also form a basis for rational materials design. Through trial and error, it has been found that perovskites in which the methylammonium molecule is replaced by formamidinium exhibit better performance. We are now able to attribute this improvement to the fact that hydrogen defects form less readily in the formamidinium compound".

“This insight provides a clear rationale for the empirically established wisdom that formamidinium is essential for realizing high-efficiency solar cells,” he added. “Based on these fundamental insights, the scientists who fabricate the materials can develop strategies to suppress the harmful defects, boosting additional efficiency enhancements in solar cells.”

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