University of Groningen scientists are investigating in situ how lead-free perovskite crystals form and how the crystal structure affects the functioning of the solar cells, as part of their quest to find alternatives to lead-based perovskites.
The best results in solar cells have been obtained using perovskites with lead as the central cation. As this metal is toxic, tin-based alternatives have been developed, for example, formamidinium tin iodide (FASnI3). This is a promising material; however, it lacks the stability of some of the lead-based materials. Attempts have been made to mix the 3D FASnI3 crystals with layered materials, containing the organic cation phenylethylammonium (PEA). "My colleague, Professor Maria Loi, and her research team showed that adding a small amount of this PEA produces a more stable and efficient material," says Assistant Professor Giuseppe Portale. "However, adding a lot of it reduces the photovoltaic efficiency".
Perovskites have been studied for a long time by Professor of Photophysics and Optoelectronics Maria Loi, while Portale developed an X-ray diffraction technique that allows him to study the rapid formation of thin films in real-time during spin-coating from solution. On a laboratory scale, the perovskite films are generally made by spin coating, a process in which a precursor solution is delivered onto a fast-spinning substrate. Crystals grow as the solvent evaporates. At the beamline BM26B-DUBBLE at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, Portale investigated what happens during the tin-perovskite film formation.
"Our initial idea, which was based on ex situ investigations, was that the oriented crystals grow from the substrate surface upwards", Portale explains. However, the in situ results showed the opposite: crystals start to grow at the air/solution interface. During his experiments, he used 3D FASnI3 with the addition of different amounts of the 2D PEASnI4. In the pure 3D perovskite, crystals started to form at the surface but also in the bulk of the solution. However, adding a small amount of the 2D material suppressed bulk crystallization and the crystals only grew from the interface.
"PEA molecules play an active role in the precursor solution of the perovskites, stabilizing the growth of oriented 3D-like crystals through coordination at the crystal's edges. Moreover, PEA molecules prevent nucleation in the bulk phase, so crystal growth only takes place at the air/solvent interface," Portale explains. The resulting films are composed of aligned 3D-like perovskite crystals and a minimal amount of 2D-like perovskite, located at the bottom of the film. The addition of low concentrations of the 2D material produces a stable and efficient photovoltaic material, while the efficiency drops dramatically at high concentrations of this 2D material.
The experiments by Portale and Loi may explain this observation: "The 2D-like perovskite is located at the substrate/film interface. Increasing the content of the 2D material to above a certain amount causes the formation of an extended 2D-like organic layer that acts as an insulator, with detrimental effect for the device's efficiency." The conclusion of the study is that the formation of this insulating layer must be prevented to achieve a highly efficient and stable tin-based perovskite. "The next step is to realize this, for example by playing with solvents, temperature or specific perovskite/substrate interactions that can break up the formation of this thick insulating layer."