By Lisa Zyga
While the most common device for converting light into electricity may be photovoltaic (PV) solar cells, a variety of other devices can perform the same light-to-electricity conversion, such as solar-thermal collectors and rectennas. In a new study, engineers have designed a new device that can convert light of infrared (IR) and visible wavelengths into direct current by using surface plasmon excitations in a simple metal-insulator-metal (MIM) device.The researchers, Fuming Wang and Nicholas A. Melosh of Stanford University, have published their study on the new device in a recent issue of Nano Letters. “The greatest significance thus far is to show an alternative method to rectennas and PV devices for IR and visible light conversion,” Melosh told PhysOrg.com. “The conversion efficiencies aren't amazingly high compared to a PV in visible, so it’s not going to replace PVs, but it could be used for energy scavenging later on.” The new device’s MIM architecture is similar to that of a rectenna. However, whereas rectennas operate with long-wavelength light such as microwaves and radio waves, the new device operates with a broad spectrum of infrared to visible wavelengths. When the MIM device is illuminated, incoming photons are absorbed by the top and bottom metal electrodes. Upon absorption, each photon excites an electron in the metal into a higher energy state so that it becomes a “hot electron.” About half of the hot electrons travel toward the metal-insulator interface, where they may be collected by the other electrode. However, photon absorption in the upper and lower electrodes generates currents with opposite signs, so a net DC current is achieved only if the absorption is larger at one electrode than the other.
Electron transmission in MIM devices (a) with and (b) without surface plasmon excitations. (c) The measured photocurrent in a device with surface plasmons (black line) is higher than in a device without them (red line). Image credit: Wang and Melosh. ©2011 American Chemical Society
Continue Reading ...This ability to maximize current from one electrode while minimizing it from the other is one of the biggest challenges for MIM devices. To do this, researchers can change the thicknesses of the electrodes. However, there is a tradeoff, since in a thicker electrode, more photons are absorbed but fewer electrons reach the interface due to increased scattering. Wang and Melosh’s solution is to use a prism to excite surface plamons (SPs) on the metal surface of the electrodes when under illumination. The SPs, which are small electron oscillations, can create a higher concentration of hot electrons in one electrode by efficiently coupling to light. The SP coupling efficiency depends on several factors, such as the thickness of the electrode, the type of metal used, and the wavelength of incoming light.
Plasmonic device converts light into electricity
More information: Fuming Wang and Nicholas A. Melosh. “Plasmonic Energy Collection through Hot Carrier Extraction.” Nano Letters, DOI: 10.1021/nl203196z