Ferroelectric solar cells for Terra Watt electricity generation

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Physics


Electricity generation on a large Tera Watt scale requires solar cells that consist of abundant, non-toxic and cheap materials. Materials selection has been inspired by geological minerals, such as Cu2ZnSnS4 (CZTS) and Sb2Se3. CZTS in particular has received widespread attention. Despite this the maximum efficiency is only 12.6%, significantly below the 20% threshold required for commercial viability. In this project we look to Nature for alternative solutions, this time in the form of ferroelectric minerals, such as enargite (Cu2AsS4) and bournonite (CuPbSbS3). Uniquely these materials possess an internal electric field, which can be exploited to enhance the electric current extracted from a solar cell. The potential for photoferroic minerals has been highlighted in a recent theoretical study, although there are as yet no experimental reports on devices. This project is a unique opportunity to carry out and learn from the device growth and characterisation expertise at both Durham and Northumbria. It will provide the student a comprehensive training programme in solar cell research, ranging from material synthesis, device electrical testing to materials characterisation using electron microscopy (SEM, TEM, cathodoluminescence).

Planned Impact

ReNU's enhanced doctoral training programme delivered by three uniquely co-located major UK universities, Northumbria (UNN), Durham (DU) and Newcastle (NU), addresses clear skills needs in small-to-medium scale renewable energy (RE) and sustainable distributed energy (DE). It was co-designed by a range of companies and is supported by a balanced portfolio of 27 industrial partners (e.g. Airbus, Siemens and Shell) of which 12 are small or medium size enterprises (SMEs) (e.g. Enocell, Equiwatt and Power Roll). A further 9 partners include Government, not-for-profit and key network organisations. Together these provide a powerful, direct and integrated pathway to a range of impacts that span whole energy systems.

Industrial partners will interact with ReNU in three main ways: (1) through the Strategic Advisory Board; (2) by providing external input to individual doctoral candidate's projects; and (3) by setting Industrial Challenge Mini-Projects. These interactions will directly benefit companies by enabling them to focus ReNU's training programme on particular needs, allowing transfer of best practice in training and state-of-the-art techniques, solution approaches to R&D challenges and generation of intellectual property. Access to ReNU for new industrial partners that may wish to benefit from ReNU is enabled by the involvement of key networks and organisations such as the North East Automotive Alliance, the Engineering Employer Federation, and Knowledge Transfer Network (Energy).

In addition to industrial partners, ReNU includes Government organisations and not for-profit-organisations. These partners provide pathways to create impact via policy and public engagement. Similarly, significant academic impact will be achieved through collaborations with project partners in Singapore, Canada and China. This impact will result in research excellence disseminated through prestigious academic journals and international conferences to the benefit of the global community working on advanced energy materials.

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S023836/1 01/04/2019 30/09/2027
2214063 Studentship EP/S023836/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Oliver Rigby
Description Cathodoluminescence at Cambridge 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Made initial contact with Cambridge and communicated research investigation and practicalities of measurement type and duration Data analysis of results Provided samples
Collaborator Contribution Instrumentation for measurements Supported data analysis Knowledge and experience of technique
Impact Abstract for conference and preparing for publication
Start Year 2022
Description DFT Work with University of York for Bournonite domain walls and Enargite Stacking Faults 
Organisation University of York
Department Department of Physics
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provided experimental Transmission Electron Microscopy data (images, diffraction patterns) and extensive analysis. Provided motivation for partnership intially throug hthese experimental images showing that these planar defects were possible. Provided knowledge and understanding of physical systems at play (i.e. related to planar defects in functional materials).
Collaborator Contribution Provided theoretical knowledge through density-functional theory (DFT) models created and understanding of planar defects as well as associated energies. Models produced enabled simulated effects of the defects on any solar cell devices (i.e. through density-of states calculations showing if there were any defects energies within the band gap of these materials).
Impact Work is being prepared for publication.
Start Year 2020
Description Natural History Museum Samples 
Organisation Natural History Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Experimental analysis on natural mineral samples provided by the Natural history Museum (NHM), including (but not limited to) Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), Energy Dispersive X-ray Analysis (EDX), Cathodoluminescence (CL), Convergent Beam Electron Diffraction (CBED), Diffraction Patterns (DP), Fast-Fourier Transform (FFT) analysis
Collaborator Contribution The NHM provided several samples of the minerals bournonite (CuPbSbS3) and enargite (Cu3AsS4) from their collection for this work, ourcing minerals from around the world including (but no limited to) Andalucia, Spain and Montana, USA.
Impact Publication (DOI:10.1063/5.0095091)
Start Year 2019
Description Northumbria University solar cell device testing 
Organisation Northumbria University
Department Department of Mathematics, Physics and Electrical Engineering
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provided samples and knowledge of behaviour Data analysis
Collaborator Contribution Instrumentation for device testing Knowledge and experience of device testing
Impact Abstract for conference, preparing work for publication
Start Year 2022
Description Raman spectroscopy at Luxembourg Insitute of Science and technology 
Organisation Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology
Country Luxembourg 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Contacted people at LIST regarding Raman measurements of samples. Communicated RE type of measurements wanted and organised timings for measurement duration Provided samples and directed research intentions
Collaborator Contribution Provided instrumentation and knowledge / instruction over its use Further contacts provided DFT / theoretical simulations for material to compare to experimental
Impact Abstract for a conference and working towards publication
Start Year 2022
Description Article written for DEI on Personal Research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Wrote an article for the magazine Durham Energy Insitute Perspectives outlining my research at the time and how it can impact future decision making for research institutions and industry.
Also highlighted future of thin-film solar cells and how they can affect global decision making for a renewable energy future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Article written for DEI on the conference 3rd Generation Solar PV in the Developing World 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Wrote an article reviewing a conference on how next generational solar cells can affect the lives of people living in the developing world.
Outlined several key case studies and how solar cells are improving the quality of lives of people.
Research highlighted involved interdisciplinary subjects, including social studies on food, chemistry/physics of new materials for solar cells as well as engineering whole PV systems for rural landscapes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.durham.ac.uk/media/durham-university/research-/research-institutes/durham-energy-institu...
Description Interview for Twitter to promote ReNU CDT 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Panel-style discussion with an academic and 2 other students about the state of renewable energy and how ReNU is helping us develop as students.
Discussion lasted around 30 minutes and contained a back and forth between students and an academic.
Personally, developed importance of clarifying discussion points and listening.
Discussion aimed to help undergraduate students interested in joining ReNU to decide if it would be suitable for them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://t.co/wFenKzibpY
Description NuSTEM Physics Experience Week 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Gave 2 papers for 16-18 year old students to read through who then interviewed me for an hour and afterwards would create a conference-style poster on my project.
Personally, communication developed for range of audiences and how to discuss project to younger audience with less physics knowledge.
Have participated in this for three consecutive years and students ask increasingly interesting and insightful questions.
Posters produced by the students are always excellent and creative.
Students reported increased awareness and understanding of subject (solar cells / physics) and used the experience to help decide what to study at university.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021,2022
URL https://nustem.uk/experience-week/