Recent advances in sensitized mesoscopic solar cells

Michael Grätzel
Accounts of Chemical Research 2009 November 17, 42 (11): 1788-98
Perhaps the largest challenge for our global society is to find ways to replace the slowly but inevitably vanishing fossil fuel supplies by renewable resources and, at the same time, avoid negative effects from the current energy system on climate, environment, and health. The quality of human life to a large degree depends upon the availability of clean energy sources. The worldwide power consumption is expected to double in the next 3 decades because of the increase in world population and the rising demand of energy in the developing countries. This implies enhanced depletion of fossil fuel reserves, leading to further aggravation of the environmental pollution. As a consequence of dwindling resources, a huge power supply gap of 14 terawatts is expected to open up by year 2050 equaling today's entire consumption, thus threatening to create a planetary emergency of gigantic dimensions. Solar energy is expected to play a crucial role as a future energy source. The sun provides about 120,000 terawatts to the earth's surface, which amounts to 6000 times the present rate of the world's energy consumption. However, capturing solar energy and converting it to electricity or chemical fuels, such as hydrogen, at low cost and using abundantly available raw materials remains a huge challenge. Chemistry is expected to make pivotal contributions to identify environmentally friendly solutions to this energy problem. One area of great promise is that of solar converters generally referred to as "organic photovoltaic cells" (OPV) that employ organic constituents for light harvesting or charge carrier transport. While this field is still in its infancy, it is receiving enormous research attention, with the number of publications growing exponentially over the past decade. The advantage of this new generation of solar cells is that they can be produced at low cost, i.e., potentially less than 1 U.S. $/peak watt. Some but not all OPV embodiments can avoid the expensive and energy-intensive high vacuum and materials purification steps that are currently employed in the fabrication of all other thin-film solar cells. Organic materials are abundantly available, so that the technology can be scaled up to the terawatt scale without running into feedstock supply problems. This gives organic-based solar cells an advantage over the two major competing thin-film photovoltaic devices, i.e., CdTe and CuIn(As)Se, which use highly toxic materials of low natural abundance. However, a drawback of the current embodiment of OPV cells is that their efficiency is significantly lower than that for single and multicrystalline silicon as well as CdTe and CuIn(As)Se cells. Also, polymer-based OPV cells are very sensitive to water and oxygen and, hence, need to be carefully sealed to avoid rapid degradation. The research discussed within the framework of this Account aims at identifying and providing solutions to the efficiency problems that the OPV field is still facing. The discussion focuses on mesoscopic solar cells, in particular, dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs), which have been developed in our laboratory and remain the focus of our investigations. The efficiency problem is being tackled using molecular science and nanotechnology. The sensitizer constitutes the heart of the DSC, using sunlight to pump electrons from a lower to a higher energy level, generating in this fashion an electric potential difference, which can exploited to produce electric work. Currently, there is a quest for sensitizers that achieve effective harnessing of the red and near-IR part of sunlight, converting these photons to electricity better than the currently used generation of dyes. Progress in this area has been significant over the past few years, resulting in a boost in the conversion efficiency of the DSC that will be reviewed.

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