Letter | Published:

Perovskite oxides for visible-light-absorbing ferroelectric and photovoltaic materials

Nature volume 503, pages 509512 (28 November 2013) | Download Citation


Ferroelectrics have recently attracted attention as a candidate class of materials for use in photovoltaic devices, and for the coupling of light absorption with other functional properties1,2,3,4,5,6,7. In these materials, the strong inversion symmetry breaking that is due to spontaneous electric polarization promotes the desirable separation of photo-excited carriers and allows voltages higher than the bandgap, which may enable efficiencies beyond the maximum possible in a conventional p–n junction solar cell2,6,8,9,10. Ferroelectric oxides are also stable in a wide range of mechanical, chemical and thermal conditions and can be fabricated using low-cost methods such as sol–gel thin-film deposition and sputtering3,5. Recent work3,5,11 has shown how a decrease in ferroelectric layer thickness and judicious engineering of domain structures and ferroelectric–electrode interfaces can greatly increase the current harvested from ferroelectric absorber materials, increasing the power conversion efficiency from about 10−4 to about 0.5 per cent. Further improvements in photovoltaic efficiency have been inhibited by the wide bandgaps (2.7–4 electronvolts) of ferroelectric oxides, which allow the use of only 8–20 per cent of the solar spectrum. Here we describe a family of single-phase solid oxide solutions made from low-cost and non-toxic elements using conventional solid-state methods: [KNbO3]1 −x[BaNi1/2Nb1/2O3 −δ]x (KBNNO). These oxides exhibit both ferroelectricity and a wide variation of direct bandgaps in the range 1.1–3.8 electronvolts. In particular, the x = 0.1 composition is polar at room temperature, has a direct bandgap of 1.39 electronvolts and has a photocurrent density approximately 50 times larger than that of the classic ferroelectric (Pb,La)(Zr,Ti)O3 material. The ability of KBNNO to absorb three to six times more solar energy than the current ferroelectric materials suggests a route to viable ferroelectric semiconductor-based cells for solar energy conversion and other applications.

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Members of the Davies group—D.V.W., D.M.S., L.W. and P.K.D.—were supported by the Energy Commercialization Institute of BFTP. We also thank M. R. Suchomel for assistance with collection of the synchrotron X-ray data. Use of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Sciences, under contract number DE-AC02-06CH11357. Members of the Spanier group—M.T. and J.E.S.—were supported by the Army Research Office, under grant number W911NF-08-1-0067. G.C. was supported by NSF grant DMR 0907381. A.R.A. was supported by the Energy Commercialization Institute of BFTP and by NSF grant DMR 1124696. E.M.G. was supported by an ASEE Postdoctoral Fellowship. Support for instrumentation used in this project was provided by the ARO DURIP programme and the NSF under grant DMR 0722845. J.E.S. also acknowledges C. L. Schauer for permitting access to the spectroscopic ellipsometer and the Drexel Centralized Research Facilities for access to instrumentation. We thank F. Yan, M. A. Islam and C. L. Johnson for assistance in transparent electrode thin-film deposition, Raman scattering, and sample thinning and polishing, respectively. Of the Rappe group, I.G. was supported by the Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, under grant number DE-FG02-07ER46431, G.G. was supported by the Energy Commercialization Institute and A.M.R. was supported by the Office of Naval Research, under grant number N00014-12-1-1033. Computational support was provided by a Challenge Grant from the High Performance Computing Modernization Office of the US Department of Defense and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center of the US Department of Energy.

Author information


  1. The Makineni Theoretical Laboratories, Department of Chemistry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6323, USA

    • Ilya Grinberg
    • , Gaoyang Gou
    •  & Andrew M. Rappe
  2. Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6272, USA

    • D. Vincent West
    • , David M. Stein
    • , Liyan Wu
    •  & Peter K. Davies
  3. Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA

    • Maria Torres
    • , Guannan Chen
    • , Eric M. Gallo
    • , Andrew R. Akbashev
    •  & Jonathan E. Spanier


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I.G. and A.M.R. created the materials design strategy. D.V.W. and P.K.D. suggested the KBNNO composition. I.G., J.E.S., P.K.D. and A.M.R. designed the calculations and experiments and supervised the analysis of obtained results. D.V.W., D.M.S. and L.W. synthesized the KBNNO powders and pellets. D.V.W. obtained the X-ray diffraction and dielectric data. G.C. developed the procedure to prepare the lamellae from the pellets. M.T. performed the piezoresponse and ellipsometry measurements. A.R.A. and J.E.S. analysed the Raman spectra. A.R.A., G.C., E.M.G. and J.E.S. carried out the ferroelectric, photoresponse and photovoltage measurements. G.G. performed the DFT calculations. I.G., G.G., J.E.S., A.M.R. and P.K.D. co-wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew M. Rappe.

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