How long to solar cells live?

I recently introduced DACs and ADCs. The reason that I got into this in the first place was so that I could build a cheap system for testing solar cells and ultimately measure their stability (lifetime). Perovskite solar cells are notoriously unstable and this is an area of active research right now. Clearly, a system that could monitor the efficiency of many solar cells at the same time would be really useful here.

So I got to work thinking about how we might actually do this. At the moment, this kind of measurement is done with a handful of cells kept under constant illumination with the efficiency being sampled on a timescale of minutes to hours. In between measurements, the cells will be disconnected (held at open-circuit). The illumination is fixed at an intensity of 1 Sun (100mW/cm^2). This kind of measurement really limits the amount and quality of data that we can get.

Firstly, we can’t test many solar cells at the same time (around eight) and have to wait until we’ve finished measuring all devices until we can test any others – data acquisition has to be halted and restarted by the investigator.

Secondly, we’re limited to using the same illumination intensity for all devices and that can only ever be 1 Sun (or perhaps less if you were to stick a neutral density filter over individual solar cells). Increasing illumination intensity will accelerate the test. Naively, doubling the intensity will quarter the lifetime which would remove another bottleneck in solar cell testing.

Lastly, and most importantly, leaving solar cells at open-circuit between measurements is not representative of real-world operation; solar cells need to deliver current to a load ideally at their maximum power point (MPP). At open circuit, the cell does not supply power – if we’re not going to use the power from the cell, what’s the point! One might argue that testing this way is fine for telling us about stability. However, the electric field and charge distribution inside the cell will be different here to real operating conditions, where we actually extract charge by drawing a current,  and degradation in these materials has already been linked to field assisted ion migration. Clearly, any learnings we might get using this approach would have limited practical application in developing highly stable solar cells for the real world.

Example I-V characteristics of a solar cell in the dark (black line) and under illumination (red line). Power output vs applied bias is also shown (dotted blue line) and the maximum power point (MPP) has been marked.So then the aim of the project is to build a system which can:

  1. provide high-intensity, controlled white light illumination
  2. monitor solar efficiency whilst the device is operated at MPP
  3. be modular and independent such that the number of channels can be expanded whenever the experimenter feels it’s necessary
  4. be manufactured for less than £20 per unit

System components

  • High-intensity light source – A high-intensity LED light source seemed like the natural option here. They are cheap, efficient (important if we don’t want lots of heat) and capable of delivering lots of light power which is exactly what we want. On the downside, they may not match the solar spectrum all that well. Solar simulators are classified according to how well they can reproduce the Sun’s illumination.
  • Basic source measurement unit (SMU) module – To characterise solar cells, a SMU is the instrument of choice.  It allows us to precisely control the voltage and read off current in either direction so that we can see all four quadrants of the IV characteristic. Commercially available Keithley SMUs tend to cost in the £1000’s so will obviously be out of our price range for this project. Still, we’re going to need something that can fulfil the role of monitoring power output and maintaining MPP during the lifetime test. I found a really useful article here describing how to build your own SMU from an Arduino and a DAC which I adapted to suit my needs.
  • Data acquisition and transfer to a central unit – As the solar cell is driven, the voltage, current and power output data as a function of time need to be transferred to a central unit that is interfaced with a computer (or SD card interface perhaps). This data will then be accessible to a user for further analysis offline.

In the coming series of posts, I’m going to detail what I did here including circuit design, testing and code. Watch this space…

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