Thin film photovoltaics have equivalent efficiency and can cut the cost of materials compared to market-dominating silicon solar panels. Utilizing the photovoltaic effect, thin layers of specific p-type and n-type materials are sandwiched together to produce electricity from sunlight. The technology promises a brighter future for solar energy, allowing low-cost and scalable manufacturing routes compared to crystalline silicon technology, even though toxic and rare materials are used in commercialized thin film solar cells. A Tokyo Institute of Technology team has challenged to find a new candidate material for producing cleaner, cheaper thin film photovoltaics.
They have focused on a simple binary compound, copper nitride that is composed of environmentally friendly elements. However, growing a nitride crystal in a high quality form is challenging as history tells us to develop gallium nitride blue LEDs. Matsuzaki and his coworkers have overcome the difficulty by introducing a novel catalytic reaction route using ammonia and oxidant gas. This compound, pictured through the photograph in figure (a), is an n-type conductor that has excess electrons. On the other hand, by inserting fluorine element in the open space of the crystal, they found this n-type compound transformed into p-type as predicted by theoretical calculations and directly proven by atomically resolved microscopy in figures (b) and (c), respectively.
All existing thin film photovoltaics require a p-type or n-type partner in their makeup of a sandwich structure, requiring huge efforts to find the best combination. P-type and n-type conduction in the same material developed by Matsuzaki and his coworkers are beneficial to design a highly efficient solar cell structure without such efforts. This material is non-toxic, abundant, and therefore potentially cheap--ideal replacements for in use cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide thin film solar cells. With the development of these p-type and n-type semiconductors, in a scalable forming technique using simple safe and abundant elements, the positive qualities will further bring thin film technology into the light.