Researchers at MIT, in collaboration with others in South Korea and Georgia, devised a new approach to the design of perovskite cells that boosted their efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity. Another team of MIT researchers examined datasets underlying the decline of lithium-ion battery costs over the years and found the rate of cost improvement to be comparable to that of solar energy technology.
Researchers Improve Efficiency of Next-Generation Solar Cell Material
Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output.
David L. Chandler | MIT News
Perovskites are a leading candidate for eventually replacing silicon as the material of choice for solar panels. They offer the potential for low-cost, low-temperature manufacturing of ultrathin, lightweight flexible cells, but so far, their efficiency at converting sunlight to electricity has lagged behind that of silicon and some other alternatives.
Now, a new approach to the design of perovskite cells has pushed the material to match or exceed the efficiency of today’s typical silicon cell, which generally ranges from 20 to 22 percent, laying the groundwork for further improvements.
By adding a specially treated conductive layer of tin dioxide bonded to the perovskite material, which provides an improved path for the charge carriers in the cell, and by modifying the perovskite formula, researchers have boosted its overall efficiency as a solar cell to 25.2 percent — a near-record for such materials, which eclipses the efficiency of many existing solar panels. (Perovskites still lag significantly in longevity compared to silicon, however, a challenge being worked on by teams around the world.)
The findings are described in a paper in the journal Nature by recent MIT graduate Jason Yoo (Ph.D. ’20), professor of chemistry and Lester Wolfe Professor Moungi Bawendi, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and Fariborz Maseeh Professor in Emerging Technology Vladimir Bulovic, and 11 others at MIT, in South Korea, and in Georgia.
Perovskites are a broad class of materials defined by the fact that they have a particular kind of molecular arrangement, or lattice, that resembles that of the naturally occurring mineral perovskite. There are vast numbers of possible chemical combinations that can make perovskites, and Yoo explained that these materials have attracted worldwide interest because “at least on paper, they could be made much more cheaply than silicon or gallium arsenide,” one of the other leading contenders. That’s partly because of the much simpler processing and manufacturing processes, which, for silicon or gallium arsenide, require sustained heat of over 1,000 degrees Celsius. In contrast, perovskites can be processed at less than 200 C, either in solution or by vapor deposition.
The other major advantage of perovskite over silicon or many other candidate replacements is that it forms extremely thin layers while still efficiently capturing solar energy. “Perovskite cells have the potential to be lightweight compared to silicon, by orders of magnitude,” Bawendi said.
Perovskites have a higher bandgap than silicon, which means they absorb a different part of the light spectrum, and thus can complement silicon cells to provide even greater combined efficiencies. But even using only perovskite, Yoo said, “what we’re demonstrating is that even with a single active layer, we can make efficiencies that threaten silicon, and hopefully [are] within punching distance of gallium arsenide. And both of those technologies have been around for much longer than perovskites have.”
One of the keys to the team’s improvement of the material’s efficiency, Bawendi explained, was in the precise engineering of one layer of the sandwich that makes up a perovskite solar cell — the electron transport layer. The perovskite itself is layered with a transparent conductive layer used to carry an electric current from the cell out to where it can be used. However, if the conductive layer is directly attached to the perovskite itself, the electrons and their counterparts, called holes, simply recombine on the spot and no current flows. In the researchers’ design, the perovskite and the conductive layer are separated by an improved type of intermediate layer that can let the electrons through while preventing the recombination.
This middle electron transport layer, and especially the interfaces where it connects to the layers on each side of it, tend to be where inefficiencies occur. By studying these mechanisms and designing a layer—consisting of tin oxide—that more perfectly conforms with those adjacent to it, the researchers were able to greatly reduce the losses.
The method they use is called chemical bath deposition. “It’s like slow cooking in a Crock-Pot,” Bawendi said. With a bath at 90 degrees Celsius, precursor chemicals slowly decompose to form the layer of tin dioxide in place. “The team realized that if we understood the decomposition mechanisms of these precursors, then we’d have a better understanding of how these films form. We were able to find the right window in which the electron transport layer with ideal properties can be synthesized.”
After a series of controlled experiments, they found that different mixtures of intermediate compounds would form, depending on the acidity of the precursor solution. They also identified a sweet spot of precursor compositions that allowed the reaction to produce a much more effective film.
The researchers combined these steps with an optimization of the perovskite layer itself. They used a set of additives to the perovskite recipe to improve its stability, which had been tried before but had an undesired effect on the material’s bandgap, making it a less efficient light absorber. The team found that by adding much smaller amounts of these additives—less than 1 percent—they could still get the beneficial effects without altering the bandgap.
The resulting improvement in efficiency has already driven the material to over 80 percent of the theoretical maximum efficiency that such materials could have, Yoo said.
While these high efficiencies were demonstrated in tiny lab-scale devices, Bawendi said that “the kind of insights we provide in this paper, and some of the tricks we provide, could potentially be applied to the methods that people are now developing for large-scale, manufacturable perovskite cells, and therefore boost those efficiencies.”
In pursuing the research further, there are two important avenues, he said: to continue pushing the limits on better efficiency, and to focus on increasing the material’s long-term stability, which currently is measured in months, compared to decades for silicon cells. But for some purposes, Bawendi pointed out, longevity may not be so essential. Many electronic devices, such as cellphones, for example, tend to be replaced within a few years anyway, so there may be some useful applications even for relatively short-lived solar cells.
“I don’t think we’re there yet with these cells, even for these kinds of shorter-term applications,” he said. “But people are getting close, so combining our ideas in this paper with ideas that other people have with increasing stability could lead to something really interesting.”
Robert Hoye, who was not part of the study, is a lecturer in materials at Imperial College London. He said, “This is excellent work by an international team.” He added, “This could lead to greater reproducibility and the excellent device efficiencies achieved in the lab translating to commercialized modules. In terms of scientific milestones, not only do they achieve an efficiency that was the certified record for perovskite solar cells for much of last year, they also achieve open-circuit voltages up to 97 percent of the radiative limit. This is an astonishing achievement for solar cells grown from solution.”
The team included researchers at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, and Georgia Tech. The work was supported by MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, NASA, the Italian company Eni SpA through the MIT Energy Initiative, the National Research Foundation of Korea, and the National Research Council of Science and Technology.
Reprinted with permission of MIT News (http://news.mit.edu).
Study Reveals Plunge in Lithium-Ion Battery Costs
Analysis quantifies a dramatic price drop that parallels similar improvements in solar and wind energy, and shows further steep declines could be possible
David L. Chandler | MIT News
The cost of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used for phones, laptops, and cars has fallen dramatically over the last three decades and has been a major driver of the rapid growth of those technologies. But attempting to quantify that cost decline has produced ambiguous and conflicting results that have hampered attempts to project the technology’s future or devise useful policies and research priorities.
Now, MIT researchers have carried out an exhaustive analysis of the studies that have looked at the decline in prices of these batteries, which are the dominant rechargeable technology in today’s world. The new study looks back over three decades, including analyzing the original underlying datasets and documents whenever possible, to arrive at a clear picture of the technology’s trajectory.
The researchers found that the cost of these batteries has dropped by 97 percent since they were first commercially introduced in 1991. This rate of improvement is much faster than many analysts had claimed and is comparable to that of solar photovoltaic panels, which some had considered to be an exceptional case. The new findings are reported [March 23, 2021 in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Micah Ziegler and Associate Professor Jessika Trancik.
While it’s clear that there have been dramatic cost declines in some clean-energy technologies, such as solar and wind, Trancik said, when they started to look into the decline in prices for lithium-ion batteries, “we saw that there was substantial disagreement as to how quickly the costs of these technologies had come down.” Similar disagreements showed up in tracing other important aspects of battery development, such as the ever-improving energy density (energy stored within a given volume) and specific energy (energy stored within a given mass).
“These trends are so consequential for getting us to where we are right now, and also for thinking about what could happen in the future,” said Trancik, who is an associate professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. While it was common knowledge that the decline in battery costs was an enabler of the recent growth in sales of electric vehicles, for example, it was unclear just how great that decline had been. Through this detailed analysis, she said, “we were able to confirm that yes, lithium-ion battery technologies have improved in terms of their costs, at rates that are comparable to solar energy technology, and specifically photovoltaic modules, which are often held up as kind of the gold standard in clean energy innovation.”
It may seem odd that there was such great uncertainty and disagreement about how much lithium-ion battery costs had declined, and what factors accounted for it, but in fact, much of the information is in the form of closely held corporate data that is difficult for researchers to access. Most lithium-ion batteries are not sold directly to consumers—you can’t run down to your typical corner drugstore to pick up a replacement battery for your iPhone, your PC, or your electric car. Instead, manufacturers buy lithium-ion batteries and build them into electronics and cars. Large companies like Apple or Tesla buy batteries by the millions, or manufacture them themselves, for prices that are negotiated or internally accounted for but never publicly disclosed.
In addition to helping to boost the ongoing electrification of transportation, further declines in lithium-ion battery costs could potentially also increase the batteries’ usage in stationary applications as a way of compensating for the intermittent supply of clean energy sources, such as solar and wind. Both applications could play a significant role in helping to curb the world’s emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases.
“I can’t overstate the importance of these trends in clean energy innovation for getting us to where we are right now, where it starts to look like we could see rapid electrification of vehicles and we are seeing the rapid growth of renewable energy technologies,” Trancik said. “Of course, there’s so much more to do to address climate change, but this has really been a game changer.”
The new findings are not just a matter of retracing the history of battery development, but of helping to guide the future, Ziegler pointed out. Combing all of the published literature on the subject of the cost reductions in lithium-ion cells, he found “very different measures of the historical improvement. And across a variety of different papers, researchers were using these trends to make suggestions about how to further reduce costs of lithium-ion technologies or when they might meet cost targets.” But because the underlying data varied so much, “the recommendations that the researchers were making could be quite different.”
Some studies suggested that lithium-ion batteries would not fall in cost quickly enough for certain applications, while others were much more optimistic. Such differences in data can ultimately have a real impact on the setting of research priorities and government incentives.
The researchers dug into the original sources of the published data, in some cases finding that certain primary data had been used in multiple studies that were later cited as separate sources, or that the original data sources had been lost along the way. And while most studies have focused only on the cost, Ziegler said it became clear that such a one-dimensional analysis might underestimate how quickly lithium-ion technologies improved; in addition to cost, weight and volume are also key factors for both vehicles and portable electronics. So, the team added a second track to the study, analyzing the improvements in these parameters as well.
“Lithium-ion batteries were not adopted because they were the least expensive technology at the time,” Ziegler said. “There were less expensive battery technologies available. Lithium-ion technology was adopted because it allows you to put portable electronics into your hand, because it allows you to make power tools that last longer and have more power, and it allows us to build cars” that can provide adequate driving range. “It felt like just looking at dollars per kilowatt-hour was only telling part of the story,” he said.
That broader analysis helps to define what may be possible in the future, he added. “We’re saying that lithium-ion technologies might improve more quickly for certain applications than would be projected by just looking at one measure of performance. By looking at multiple measures, you get essentially a clearer picture of the improvement rate, and this suggests that they could maybe improve more rapidly for applications where the restrictions on mass and volume are relaxed.”
Trancik added that the new study can play an important role in energy-related policymaking. “Published data trends on the few clean technologies that have seen major cost reductions over time—wind, solar, and now lithium-ion batteries—tend to be referenced over and over again, and not only in academic papers but in policy documents and industry reports,” she said. “Many important climate policy conclusions are based on these few trends. For this reason, it is important to get them right. There’s a real need to treat the data with care, and to raise our game overall in dealing with technology data and tracking these trends.”
“Battery costs determine price parity of electric vehicles with internal combustion engine vehicles,” said Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He was not associated with this work. “Thus, projecting battery cost declines is probably one of the most critical challenges in ensuring an accurate understanding of adoption of electric vehicles.”
Viswanathan added that “the finding that cost declines may occur faster than previously thought will enable broader adoption, increasing volumes, and leading to further cost declines….The datasets curated, analyzed, and released with this paper will have a lasting impact on the community.”
The work was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Reprinted with permission of MIT News (http://news.mit.edu/).
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