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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/K001620/1
Title: Carrier lifetime measurement at grain boundaries in thin-film solar cells
Principal Investigator: Mendis, Dr B
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
University of Liverpool
Department: Physics
Organisation: Durham, University of
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 09 November 2012 Ends: 01 January 2014 Value (£): 25,425
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Solar Technology
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Summary on Grant Application Form
The total solar energy reaching the Earth in less than an hour is greater than the annual global energy demand. Solar cells provide valuable renewable energy by converting sunlight into electricity. Silicon currently dominates solar cell technology, although it is an intrinsically poor absorber of light. On the other hand thin-film solar cells utilise strongly absorbing materials so that the material volume is reduced to a thin layer a few micrometers in thickness, thereby lowering cost. Examples include CdTe and CIGS, the former being commercially produced with an annual output exceeding 1 Giga Watt.

A common feature of thin-film solar cells is the high density of crystal defects known as 'grain boundaries'. A grain boundary demarcates the region where two crystals (i.e. grains) of different orientation impinge on one another. They typically reduce the overall solar cell efficiency and need to be passivated for optimum device operation. Indeed in CdTe solar cells a 'chlorine activation' step is used post-deposition where the device is annealed in a chlorine-rich environment leading to a ten-fold improvement in efficiency. It is thought that chlorine segregates to the grain boundaries thereby passivating them, although the precise mechanism is unknown.

In this project we will use state-of-the-art measurements of carrier lifetimes at individual grain boundaries to explore the fundamental mechanism(s) behind chlorine activation. The carrier lifetime is an important parameter specifying the electrical activity of a given grain boundary and its effect on device operation. In order to carry out such measurements a high spatial resolution (few nanometres) must be combined with excellent temporal resolution (a few picoseconds) the technical demands for which have only recently been overcome. We will carry out the very first measurements of grain boundary carrier lifetimes in CdTe thin-film solar cells using the new Attolight scanning electron microscope recently installed at EPFL, Switzerland. This is the only scientific instrument of its kind in the world capable of carrying out such analyses. We will also explore the relative effectiveness of different chlorine activation routes (i.e. standard activation using solid CdCl2 and gas activation methods) for passivating grain boundaries. This has important long term commercial benefits such as the production of efficient CdTe thin-film solar cells as well as reducing the environmental impact of the chlorine activation process.

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