MemberSeptember 10, 2021 at 2:41 am
The step cell is made by layering a gallium arsenide phosphide-based solar cell, consisting of a semiconductor material that absorbs and efficiently converts higher-energy photons, on a low-cost silicon solar cell.
The silicon layer is exposed, appearing like a bottom step. This intentional step design allows the top gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) layer to absorb the high-energy photons (from blue, green, and yellow light) leaving the bottom silicon layer free to absorb lower-energy photons (from red light) not only transmitted through top layers but also from the entire visible light spectrum.
“We realized that when the top gallium arsenide phosphide layer completely covered the bottom silicon layer, the lower-energy photons were absorbed by the silicon germanium — the substrate on which the gallium arsenide phosphide is grown — and thus the solar cell had a much lower efficiency,” explains Sabina Abdul Hadi, a PhD student at Masdar Institute whose doctoral dissertation provided the foundational research for the step-cell. “By etching away the top layer and exposing some of the silicon layer, we were able to increase the efficiency considerably.”
Working under Nayfeh’s supervision, Abdul Hadi conducted simulations based on experimental results to determine the optimal levels and geometrical configuration of the GaAsP layer on silicon to yield the highest efficiencies. Her findings resulted in the team’s initial proof-of-concept solar cell. Abdul Hadi will continue supporting the step cell’s technological development as a post-doctoral researcher at Masdar Institute.
On the MIT side, the team developed the GaAsP, which they did by growing the semiconductor alloy on a substrate made of silicon germanium (SiGe).
“Gallium arsenide phosphide cannot be grown directly on silicon, because its crystal lattices differ considerably from silicon’s, so the silicon crystals become degraded. That’s why we grew the gallium arsenide phosphide on the silicon germanium — it provides a more stable base,” explains Nayfeh.
The problem with the silicon germanium under the GaAsP layer is that SiGe absorbs the lower-energy light waves before it reaches the bottom silicon layer, and SiGe does not convert these low-energy light waves into current.
“To get around the optical problem posed by the silicon germanium, we developed the idea of the step cell, which allows us to leverage the different energy absorption bands of gallium arsenide phosphate and silicon,” says Nayfeh.
The step cell concept led to an improved cell in which the SiGe template is removed and re-used, creating a solar cell in which GaAsP cell tiles are directly on top of a silicon cell. The step-cell allows for SiGe reuse since the GaAsP cell tiles can be under-cut during the transfer process. Explaining the future low-cost fabrication process, Fitzgerald says: “We grew the gallium arsenide phosphide on top of the silicon germanium, patterned it in the optimized geometric configuration, and bonded it to a silicon cell. Then we etched through the patterned channels and lifted off the silicon germanium alloys on silicon. What remains then, is a high-efficiency tandem solar cell and a silicon germanium template, ready to be reused.”
Because the tandem cell is bonded together, rather than created as a monolithic solar cell (where all layers are grown onto a single substrate), the SiGe can be removed and reused repeatedly, which significantly reduces the manufacturing costs.
“Adding that one layer of the gallium arsenide phosphide can really boost efficiency of the solar cell but because of the unique ability to etch away the silicon germanium and reuse it, the cost is kept low because you can amortize that silicon germanium cost over the course of manufacturing many cells,” Fitzgerald adds.