A newly discovered path for the conversion of sunlight to electricity could brighten the future for photovoltaic technology. Researchers with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have found a new mechanism by which the photovoltaic effect can take place in semiconductor thin-films. This new route to energy production overcomes the bandgap voltage limitation that continues to plague conventional solid-state solar cells.
These nanoscale images of bismuth ferrite thin films show ordered arrays of 71 degree domain walls (top) and 109 degree doman walls (bottom). By changing the polarization direction of the bismuth ferrite, these domain walls give rise to the photovoltaic effect. (Credit: Image from Seidel, et. al.)
Working with bismuth ferrite, a ceramic made from bismuth, iron and oxygen that is multiferroic — meaning it simultaneously displays both ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties — the researchers discovered that the photovoltaic effect can spontaneously arise at the nanoscale as a result of the ceramic’s rhombohedrally distorted crystal structure. Furthermore, they demonstrated that the application of an electric field makes it possible to manipulate this crystal structure and thereby control photovoltaic properties.