I recently had an opportunity to attend the 39th IEEE Photovoltaics Specialists Conference in Tampa, Florida (http://www.ieee-pvsc.org/PVSC39/). Since I am just starting to work in Photovoltaics, it was a great opportunity for me to get immersed in this very quickly developing field by listening to high quality presentations given by the leaders of the field. The presentations were divided into 11 topic areas, with a few sessions taking place at the same time. I really wanted to be in a few rooms simultaneously, but with my background in quantum theory I decided to focus mostly on attending sessions from research Area 1: Fundamentals and New Concepts of Future Technologies.

I found a talk by Megumi Yoshida from Imperial College London :“Progress towards Realizing Intermediate Band Solar Cell – Sequential Absorption of Photons in a Quantum Well Intermediate Band Solar Cell” particularly interesting. I was familiar with the concept of introducing the intermediate band (IB) into the solar cell to improve the absorption of photons with energy lower than the band gap energy (see Fig 1 (a)), however this talk took this concept one step further. The intermediate band solar cell (IBSC) can be created introducing quantum mechanically confined structures such as quantum wells and quantum dots [1] into the solar cell. In such cases, the IB arises from the confined states of the electrons in the conduction band (CB) potential.  In theory, by introducing the IB the current can be enhanced by two step absorption of long wavelength photons without reducing the voltage, hence leading to higher conversion efficiency (thermodynamical limit of 46.8% at 1 sun [2]), than a single bandgap solar cell (31.0% at 1 sun).

Figure 1 of Anna's blog

Fig. 1. Energy diagram of an (a) IBSC and (b) IBSC with photon rachet band (RB), in which extra photocurrent is produced due to sequential absorption of sub-bandgap photons increasing theoretical limit in the conversion efficiency. Reprinted with permission from [3]. Copyright 2012 AIP Publishing LLC.


However, experimentally obtained IBSCs suffer from a significant voltage loss resulting in lower than predicted theoretical conversion efficiency due to the short lifetime of electrons in the intermediate states. The short lifetime is caused by fast radiative and non-radiative recombination of carriers that occurs before the second photon can be absorbed. To achieve a long carrier lifetime of electrons in the IB, the authors suggest the introduction of a non-emissive (optically decoupled from the valance band (VB) [3]) “ratchet band (RB)” at an energy interval ΔE below the IB (shown in Fig. 1(b)). If there is fast thermal transition between the IB and the ratchet band, the photo-excited electrons in the IB rapidly relax into the RB where the lifetime of the carriers can be very long given that the RB is optically isolated from the VB. The increase in lifetime of the electrons enhances the probability of the second optical excitation process from the RB to the CB and increases the IB-CB generation rate. At the same time, the recombination rate of the electrons from the IB to the VB depends on the population in the IB. The presence of the RB reduces the population of carriers in the IB and the same the recombination rate leading to the increase of the photocurrent of the solar cell and its higher efficiency.

Figure 2 of Anna's blog

Fig. 2. Efficiency limit of photon ratchet IBSC of various concentrations as a function of ΔE. Efficiency at ΔE=0 corresponds to conventional IBSCs. Reprinted with permission from [3]. Copyright 2012 AIP Publishing LLC.

Authors calculate the globally optimised limiting efficiency of the photon ratchet IBSC as a function of the energy difference ΔE between the IB and RB. These dependencies are plotted for three solar concentrations in Fig. 2. Even though electrons lose the energy ΔE by transitioning from the IB to the RB, an increase in efficiency is visible as ΔE is increased. At the same time, the presence of the ratchet increases the below-bandgap and thermalization losses, but the associated efficiency gain through reduction in recombination is even larger. At 1 sun illumination, the efficiency of the IBSC is increased from 46.8% (ΔE = 0, conventional IBSC) to 48.5% with a photon ratchet at ΔE = 270 meV. At full concentration however, the introduction of the loss due to the presence of the ratchet band is not compensated by any other mechanism, leading to a decreased efficiency of the IBSC with the RB as compared to the standard IB cell (ΔE = 0).

Although it seems that the implementation of the photon ratchet IBSC is going to be challenging, I think that this concept is very interesting. Authors suggest that the RB can be built out states of indirect bandgap semiconductor separated in momentum space from the IB. Electrons would be first excited into a direct IB state, followed by a relaxation down through phonon emission to an indirect photon ratchet state, which is at a lower energy and separated by momentum k from the IB state, as well as the top of the VB.

Anna Trojnar's picture


-Anna Trojnar, Ph.D

Postdoctoral Fellow

Sunlab, University of Ottawa


[1] A. Marti, L. Cuadra, A. Luque, “Quantum dot intermediate band solar cell” Conference Record of the Twenty-Eighth IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, p940 (2000).

[2] A. Luque and A. Martí, “Increasing the efficiency of ideal solar cells by photon induced transitions at intermediate levels”, Phys. Rev. Lett. vol. 78, p5014 (1997).

[3] M. Yoshida, N. J. Ekins-Daukes, D. J. Farrell, C. C. Phillips, “Photon ratchet intermediate band solar cells,” Appl. Phys. Lett. vol. 100, p263902 (2012)