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Energy Express

  • Editor: Christian Seassal
  • Vol. 21, Iss. S5 — Sep. 9, 2013
  • pp: A786–A797
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Plasmonic silicon solar cells: impact of material quality and geometry

Celine Pahud, Olindo Isabella, Ali Naqavi, Franz-Josef Haug, Miro Zeman, Hans Peter Herzig, and Christophe Ballif  »View Author Affiliations


Optics Express, Vol. 21, Issue S5, pp. A786-A797 (2013)
http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/OE.21.00A786


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Abstract

We study n-i-p amorphous silicon solar cells with light-scattering nanoparticles in the back reflector. In one configuration, the particles are fully embedded in the zinc oxide buffer layer; In a second configuration, the particles are placed between the buffer layer and the flat back electrode. We use stencil lithography to produce the same periodic arrangement of the particles and we use the same solar cell structure on top, thus establishing a fair comparison between a novel plasmonic concept and its more traditional counterpart. Both approaches show strong resonances around 700 nm in the external quantum efficiency the position and intensity of which vary strongly with the nanoparticle shape. Moreover, disagreement between simulations and our experimental results suggests that the dielectric data of bulk silver do not correctly represent the reality. A better fit is obtained by introducing a porous interfacial layer between the silver and zinc oxide. Without the interfacial layer, e.g. by improved processing of the nanoparticles, our simulations show that the nanoparticles concept could outperform traditional back reflectors.

© 2013 OSA

1. Introduction

Thin-film silicon solar cells strongly rely on light-trapping schemes to achieve high efficiencies. Due to their relatively low absorption in the near-infrared wavelengths, light management is necessary to enhance their photocurrent [1

1. H. Deckman, C. Wronski, H. Witzke, and E. Yablonovitch, “Optically enhanced amorphous silicon solar cells,” Appl. Phys. Lett. 42(11), 968–970 (1983) [CrossRef] .

]. The conventional approach consists of growing silicon layers on a randomly textured substrate or transparent conductive oxide (TCO) layer [2

2. A. Banerjee and S. Guha, “Study of back reflectors for amorphous silicon alloy solar cell application,” J. Appl. Phys. 69(2), 1030–1035 (1991) [CrossRef] .

5

5. S. Guha and J. Yang, “Progress in amorphous and nanocrystalline silicon solar cells,” J. Non-Cryst. Solids 352, 1917–1921 (2006) [CrossRef] .

]. Efficient scattering occurs at the rough TCO/silicon interface because of the refractive index mismatch between the two materials. To date, the most efficient solar cells are based on this approach, both in superstrate (p-i-n) and substrate (n-i-p) configurations [6

6. S. Benagli, D. Borello, E. Vallat-Sauvain, J. Meier, U. Kroll, J. Hoetzel, J. Bailat, J. Steinhauser, M. Marmelo, G. Monteduro, and L. Castens, “High efficiency amorphous silicon devices on LP-CVD-ZnO TCO prepared in industrial KAI R&D reactor,” Conference Record 23th EU-PVSEC 3BO.9.3 (2009).

8

8. H. Lee, S. Ahn, S. Lee, and J. Choi, “Silicon thin film technology applications for low cost and high efficiency photovoltaics,” 21st International Photovoltaic Science and Engineering Conference, Fukuoka 4A–2I–01 (2011).

].

Light scattering by metallic nanoparticles is an alternative and promising approach for light trapping. Silver or gold subwavelength particles embedded in a dielectric support localized plasmonic modes that have a large scattering cross section [9

9. K. Catchpole and S. Pillai, “Absorption enhancement due to scattering by dipoles into silicon waveguides,” J. Appl. Phys. 100, 044504 (2006) [CrossRef] .

, 10

10. H. Atwater and A. Polman, “Plasmonics for improved photovoltaic devices,” Nature Mater. 9(3), 205–213, (2010) [CrossRef] .

]. The scattering efficiency strongly depends on the nanoparticle size, as particles smaller than 30 nm tend more to absorb light than to scatter it [11

11. R. Santbergen, T. Temple, R. Liang, A. Smets, R. Swaaij, and M. Zeman, “Application of plasmonic silver island films in thin-film silicon solar cells,” J. Opt. 14, 024010 (2012) [CrossRef] .

]. Therefore, the nanoparticles need to be carefully designed to avoid parasitic absorption and to enhance photocurrent generation in the solar cell. Modelling results predict that plasmonic concepts can yield significant photocurrent enhancement in thin-film silicon solar cells [12

12. C. Rockstuhl and F. Lederer, “Photon management by metallic nanodiscs in thin film solar cells,” Appl. Phys Lett. 94, 213102 (2009) [CrossRef] .

17

17. J. Wang, F. Tsai, J. Huang, C. Chen, N. Li, Y. Kiang, and C. Yang, “Enhancing InGaN-based solar cell efficiency through localized surface plasmon interaction by embedding Ag nanoparticles in the absorbing layer,” Opt. express , 18(3), 2682–2694 (2010) [CrossRef] [PubMed] .

].

Experimental results suggest that plasmonic cells must be designed carefully; the incorporation of nanoparticles on the front contact of solar cells, as originally suggested by Stuart et al. [18

18. H.R. Stuart and D.G. Hall, “Absorption enhancement in silicononinsulator waveguides using metal island films,” Appl. Phys. Lett. 69, 2337 (1996) [CrossRef] .

], resulted in significant photocurrent loss in the visible range when applied to crystalline solar cells [19

19. F. Beck, A. Polman, and K. Catchpole, “Tunable light trapping for solar cells using localized surface plasmons,” J. Appl. Phys. 105, 114310 (2009) [CrossRef] .

, 20

20. O. El Daifa, L. Tong, B. Figeys, K. Van Nieuwenhuysen, A. Dmitriev, P. Van Dorpe, I. Gordon, and F. Dross, “Front side plasmonic effect on thin silicon epitaxial solar cells,” Sol. Energy Mater. Sol. Cells 104, 58–63 (2012) [CrossRef] .

], while embedding them in the absorber layer of thin-film cells was found to disturb current collection [21

21. R. Santbergen, R. Liang, and M. Zeman, “Amorphous silicon solar cells with silver nanoparticles embedded inside the absorber layer,” Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings1245. Cambridge Univ Press (2010).

]. Therefore, integration into the back reflector represents the most successful option [22

22. E. Moulin, J. Sukmanowski, P. Luo, R. Carius, F. Royer, and H. Stiebig, “Improved light absorption in thin-film silicon solar cells by integration of silver nanoparticles,” J. Non-Cryst. Solids 354(19), 2488–2491 (2008) [CrossRef] .

24

24. H. Mizuno, H. Sai, K. Matsubara, and M. Kondo, “Light trapping by Ag nanoparticles chemically assembled inside thin-film hydrogenated microcrystalline Si solar cells,” Jpn. J. Appl. Phys. 51, 042302 (2012) [CrossRef] .

]. However, it remains difficult to assess the true benefit of plasmonic concepts from a comparison to flat reference cells since the embedding of nanoparticles in the rear electrode also adds texture to the active layers. Recently, Tan et al. presented a plasmonic back reflector that yields a photocurrent as high as that generated by a conventional random reflector, alas one with very different texture [25

25. H. Tan, R. Santbergen, A. Smets, and M. Zeman, “Plasmonic light trapping in thin-film silicon solar cells with improved self-assembled silver nanoparticles,” Nano Lett. 12(8), 4070–4076 (2012) [CrossRef] [PubMed] .

].

2. Methods

2.1. Solar cell fabrication

Fig. 1 Modelling domain used for the HFSS optical simulation. (a) Nanoparticles reflector with nanoparticles embedded in ZnO. (b) Grating reflector with nanoparticles in contact with the silver (Ag) layer. The silver nanoparticles are modelled as circular discs (light grey). The reminder of the cell-stack is identical in both configurations.

Amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) solar cells with a ∼220-nm-thick intrinsic layer were deposited in the substrate configuration onto the back reflectors. The front electrode is composed of a 70-nm-thick indium tin oxide (ITO) layer that acts as an anti-reflection coating. Cells have an area of 3 mm × 3 mm with a patterned area of 2 mm × 2 mm at the center. Cells were characterized in their initial state by external quantum efficiency (EQE) measurements on the 2 mm × 2 mm patterned area. The short circuit current density (Jsc) was calculated from each EQE curve, weighted by the AM1.5g spectrum and integrated over the wavelength range between 350 nm and 800 nm. Values of Voc and FF are given in [26

26. C. Pahud, V. Savu, M. Klein, O. Vazquez-Mena, J. Brugger, and C. Ballif, “Stencil-nanopatterned back reflectors for thin-film amorphous silicon n-i-p solar cells,” IEEE J. Photovolt. 3(1), 22–26, (2013) [CrossRef] .

].

2.2. Optical simulations

3. Results

3.1. Comparison of simulations with experimental EQEs

Fig. 2 Simulated and experimental EQEs of n-i-p a-Si:H solar cells deposited on the nanoparticles (a) and on the grating (b) reflectors, assuming different silver datasets. Large and small symbols represent the experimental EQEs and the enhancements with respect to a flat reference, respectively.

Experimentally, we do not have direct access to the dielectric properties of the silver used for the nanoparticles. Instead, we used tabulated data from the literature. The data of Johnson and Christie (in the subsequent text denoted simply by Johnson) [37

37. P. Johnson and R. Christy, “Optical constants of the noble metals,” Phys. Rev. B 6(12), 4370 (1972) [CrossRef] .

] are widely used, as are those of Palik [38

38. E. Palik, Handbook of Optical Constants of Solids(Academic press31998),

], which are very similar to the earlier data of Ingersoll [39

39. L. Ingersoll, “The dispersion of metals in the infra-red spectrum,” Astrophys. J. 32(265), (1910) [CrossRef] .

]. Recently, it was suggested that neither Johnson nor Palik’s data are representative [40

40. M. Green and S. Pillai, “Harnessing plasmonics for solar cells,” Nature Photon. 6(3), 130–132 (2012) [CrossRef] .

] and that the data of Nash and Sambles [41

41. D. Nash and J. Sambles, “Surface plasmon-polariton study of the optical dielectric function of silver,” J. Mod. Opt. 43(1), 81–91 (1996).

] should be used instead. The comparison in Fig. 3 shows that the real parts of the various permittivities differ by about 10% or less in the wavelength range relevant for the current study. However, the logarithmic scale used for the imaginary part illustrates differences of almost one order of magnitude.

Fig. 3 Real and imaginary parts of the permittivity tabulated for silver. The uppermost curve corresponds to the data of Palik with the addition of a Lorentzian resonance at 1.95 eV. Note the logarithmic scale to the right for the imaginary part.

We chose the data with the largest and smallest imaginary part of silver permittivity – those of Palik and Johnson, respectively – over the light-trapping region, i.e. between 600 and 750 nm. The corresponding simulations result in the top two curves in Fig. 2. As expected from the low imaginary part, the data of Johnson predict the lowest losses in silver and therefore the highest EQEs between 600 and 700 nm. The response in this wavelength range is lower if data of Palik is used. For the grating reflector, the simulations start resembling the measured data with the exception of a small band between 600 and 650 nm where the EQE is still overestimated. For the nanoparticles reflector, however, both simulations are still significantly above the experimental characteristic.

3.2. Modification of material properties

We used ω1 = c/λ1, ω2 = c/λ2, Ω = (ω1 + ω2)/2, and Γ = ω1ω2 where c is speed of light in air. An amplitude of A = 0.7 and a wavelength window between λ1 = 600 nm and λ2 = 675 nm were chosen. The resulting permittivity is shown by the uppermost curve in Fig. 3. The addition of a Lorentzian resonance has a strong impact on the imaginary part of the permittivity over the resonant region while the changes to the real part are moderate.

For the sake of simplifying the modelling routine, we applied the modified permittivity to the whole volume of the silver nanoparticles. This might be justified to some extent for the nanoparticles reflector since in this case the particles are fully surrounded by ZnO and [43

43. D. Sainju, P. van den Oever, N. Podraza, M. Syed, J. Stoke, J. Chen, X. Yang, X. Deng, and R. Collins, “Origin of optical losses in Ag/ZnO back-reflectors for thin film Si photovoltaics,” in Photovoltaic Energy Conversion, Conference Record of the 2006 IEEE 4th World Conference on2, 1732–1735 (2006).

] reports that interfacial layers can be as thick as 25 nm. The choice is less justified for the grating reflector where only the side-walls and the upper surface are exposed to ZnO. The resulting simulations are represented by the lowest of the three lines in Fig. 2. This modification tends to underestimate the EQE on the grating reflector above 650 nm, but in the case of the plasmonic grating the simulated EQE is still above the experimental result. Hence, the parasitic loss is still not sufficient to account for the measurement on the nanoparticles grating. Despite all the weaknesses of this empirical approach, we can nevertheless infer that the nanoparticles reflector is more vulnerable to the parasitic absorption than the grating reflector since almost twice the surface area is exposed for intermixing with the surrounding ZnO.

3.3. Influence of particle geometry

The nanoparticle geometry has a significant influence on the resonance frequency and the associated light scattering [44

44. K. Kelly, E. Coronado, L. Zhao, and G. Schatz, “The optical properties of metal nanoparticles: the influence of size, shape, and dielectric environment,” J. Phys. Chem. B 107(3), 668–677 (2003) [CrossRef] .

]. To better reflect the SEM cross section images (see Fig. 3 in [26

26. C. Pahud, V. Savu, M. Klein, O. Vazquez-Mena, J. Brugger, and C. Ballif, “Stencil-nanopatterned back reflectors for thin-film amorphous silicon n-i-p solar cells,” IEEE J. Photovolt. 3(1), 22–26, (2013) [CrossRef] .

]), we replaced the discs with cropped cones with a wall inclination of 64.4° with respect to the substrate plane. The modelling results in Fig. 4 illustrate that this modification increases the EQE between 550 and 600 nm. It is unlikely that the marginally increased volume of the silicon absorber layer should yield such an improvement. Plotting the integrated absorption in the nanoparticles only, it appears that the gain in this spectral region is explained by reduced parasitic absorption. Figure 4 shows that on both types of reflector, the resonance at 710 nm is almost unchanged by the modification of the wall inclination. The peak at 680 nm undergoes a red-shift and a an intensity increase that is more pronounced on the grating reflector.

Fig. 4 Simulated and experimental EQEs for the nanoparticles (a) and the grating (b) reflectors, assuming cylindric (dashed-dotted lines) and conic (full lines) nanoparticles. In both panels, the lower part shows the absorption in the particles.

Fig. 5 Change of the EQE due to deviation of nanoparticle shape from circular to oval in the simulation. Dashed-dotted, dashed and full lines represent eccentricities of 0, 0.3 and 0.4, and the thick line gives their average. Circles and squares denote again the nanoparticles and the grating reflector, respectively.

4. Discussion

The results allow us to draw several conclusions about the functioning of plasmonic light scattering in solar cells. Figures 2, 4 and 5 show that in all modelled cases the nanoparticles reflector is predicted to achieve a higher EQE than the grating one. In terms of photocurrent, Table 1 shows that the difference amounts to 0.3 mA/cm2, which is significant considering that the only difference between the reflectors is the position of the particles in the ZnO film. Yet higher gain may be expected simply by moving the particles closer to the absorber film [24

24. H. Mizuno, H. Sai, K. Matsubara, and M. Kondo, “Light trapping by Ag nanoparticles chemically assembled inside thin-film hydrogenated microcrystalline Si solar cells,” Jpn. J. Appl. Phys. 51, 042302 (2012) [CrossRef] .

].

Table 1. Short-circuit current densities for n-i-p cells on the nanoparticles and grating reflectors, using different dielectric data for the silver nanoparticles. Values in parentheses are obtained by suppressing the sharp resonances around 700 nm. The last line gives the experimental results [26].

table-icon
View This Table

We should still note that the idealized situation in the model does not reflect all experimental complications. In the following, we will discuss their impact on the shown results as well as possible remedies. First, it turned out that the dielectric data for silver given by Johnson are not necessarily representative of the experimental reality while the data tabulated by Palik appear to be better suited. The calculated integrated photocurrent is thus reduced by approximately 0.3 mA/cm2 for both types of reflector. Compared to the material used in this investigation, higher quality silver can be obtained by depositing at elevated temperature or by annealing after deposition [45

45. K. Söderström, F. Haug, J. Escarré, C. Pahud, R. Biron, and C. Ballif, “Highly reflective nanotextured sputtered silver back reflector for flexible high-efficiency n–i–p thin-film silicon solar cells,” Sol. Energy Mater. Sol. Cells 95(12), 3585–3591 (2011) [CrossRef] .

]; however, these two options can also change the morphology which would have been undesirable for the intended comparison. Finally, suppressing the sharp resonances around 700 nm yields a reduction of about 0.4 mA/cm2. Again the value is almost exactly the same for the two types of reflector.

Another experimental constraint is surface roughness. This is hard to avoid in the real world and even more difficult to account for in simulation work. In the model, we kept Palik’s data for the underlying silver layer but described the whole volume of nanoparticles as intermixed material. This yields a decrease of 0.5 mA/cm2. Once more it is the same amount for both types of reflector.

So far, all of the discussed losses were equally pronounced on the two reflector types. However, the design of this experiment unavoidably penalizes the nanoparticles concept: Even though care was taken to make the comparison as fair as possible, Fig. 6(b) shows that the particles in the grating reflector continue the grain structure of the flat silver film underneath. In case of the nanoparticles reflector shown in Fig. 6(a), the particles are forced to nucleate on the ZnO film, which is likely to result in a porous interface and a nucleation region with small grain size. Given the small height of the discs, the nucleation region will probably extend throughout most of each nanoparticle’s volume. We chose the parameters of the Lorentzian resonance to show this effect, not to attain a perfect fit which would be physically meaningless with so crude a model. Our choice may therefore underestimate the losses in the nanoparticles case and overestimate those in the grating reflector where no intermixed zone is found at underside of the particles. Looking at the range of current densities with and without the presence of the Lorentzian resonance, we could argue that the grating reflector should be closer to 14.51 mA/cm2 while the nanoparticles reflector might even dip below the projected value of 14.25 mA/cm2.

Fig. 6 SEM image cross section of a-Si:H solar cells deposited on the nanoparticles (a) and the grating reflectors (b). The silver nanoparticles in the nanoparticles reflector are composed of small silver grains due to their nucleation on the ZnO film while the silver grains can resume their growth in the grating reflector.

5. Conclusion

We carried out a comparison between two strategies for the grating back reflector of thin-film solar cells. Using the same geometry, one is based on light scattering from localized plasmon resonances, and the other represents a conventional reflector with texture. Although the latter showed better light-trapping performance in our experiments and would discourage the use of nanoparticles concepts, theoretical modelling predicts otherwise. We studied a variety of scenarios to point out the adverse effects of the nanoparticles concept, in particular the poor quality of silver nanoparticles grown on the ZnO film. Finally we discussed alternative configurations and fabrication methods that could avoid these shortcomings and give plasmonic concepts a chance to live up to their potential and to exceed the photocurrent of state-of-the-art silicon solar cells.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank D. Alexander for the FIB and SEM images and V. Savu, M. Klein and J. Brugger for the deposition of silver nanodots. The authors acknowledge the support of the EU-Project Si-Light Contract No. 241277 and the Federal Office for Energy under Contract No. SI/500750-01.

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K. Kelly, E. Coronado, L. Zhao, and G. Schatz, “The optical properties of metal nanoparticles: the influence of size, shape, and dielectric environment,” J. Phys. Chem. B 107(3), 668–677 (2003) [CrossRef] .

45.

K. Söderström, F. Haug, J. Escarré, C. Pahud, R. Biron, and C. Ballif, “Highly reflective nanotextured sputtered silver back reflector for flexible high-efficiency n–i–p thin-film silicon solar cells,” Sol. Energy Mater. Sol. Cells 95(12), 3585–3591 (2011) [CrossRef] .

46.

C. Lee, T. Lee, and Y. Jen, “Ion-assisted deposition of silver thin films,” Thin Solid Films 359(1), 95–97 (2000) [CrossRef] .

47.

Z. Holman, M. Filipic, A. Descoeudres, S. De Wolf, F. Smole, M. Topic, and C. Ballif, “Infrared light management in high-efficiency silicon heterojunction and rear-passivated solar cells,” J. Appl. Phys. 113, 013107 (2013) [CrossRef] .

OCIS Codes
(250.5403) Optoelectronics : Plasmonics
(310.6845) Thin films : Thin film devices and applications

ToC Category:
Photovoltaics

History
Original Manuscript: May 17, 2013
Revised Manuscript: July 4, 2013
Manuscript Accepted: July 4, 2013
Published: July 16, 2013

Citation
Celine Pahud, Olindo Isabella, Ali Naqavi, Franz-Josef Haug, Miro Zeman, Hans Peter Herzig, and Christophe Ballif, "Plasmonic silicon solar cells: impact of material quality and geometry," Opt. Express 21, A786-A797 (2013)
http://www.opticsinfobase.org/oe/abstract.cfm?URI=oe-21-S5-A786


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