Flexo-photovoltaic effect

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Science  25 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6391, pp. 904-907
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3256

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Poking a semiconductor

Noncentrosymmetric crystal structure can lead to a peculiar kind of charge separation under illumination called the bulk photovoltaic (BPV) effect. Solar cells made of such materials, however, typically have low efficiency. Yang et al. expanded the class of materials capable of exhibiting the BPV effect by making ordinarily centrosymmetric materials, such as SrTiO3 and TiO2, lose their inversion symmetry. The authors accomplished this by applying a point force on the surface of the material. This induced a strain gradient and the loss of inversion symmetry, resulting in large photovoltaic currents under illumination. The mechanism, dubbed the flexo-photovoltaic effect, is expected to apply to most semiconductors.

Science, this issue p. 904


It is highly desirable to discover photovoltaic mechanisms that enable enhanced efficiency of solar cells. Here we report that the bulk photovoltaic effect, which is free from the thermodynamic Shockley-Queisser limit but usually manifested only in noncentrosymmetric (piezoelectric or ferroelectric) materials, can be realized in any semiconductor, including silicon, by mediation of flexoelectric effect. We used either an atomic force microscope or a micrometer-scale indentation system to introduce strain gradients, thus creating very large photovoltaic currents from centrosymmetric single crystals of strontium titanate, titanium dioxide, and silicon. This strain gradient–induced bulk photovoltaic effect, which we call the flexo-photovoltaic effect, functions in the absence of a p-n junction. This finding may extend present solar cell technologies by boosting the solar energy conversion efficiency from a wide pool of established semiconductors.

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