In a conventional p-n junction photovoltaic cell, made, for example, from silicon, the semiconductor assumes two roles at the same time: It harvests the incident sunlight and conducts the charge carriers produced under light excitation. In order to function at a good efficiency, the photons have to be absorbed close to the p-n interface. Electron-hole pairs produced away from the junction must diffuse to the p-n contact where the local electrostatic field separates the charges. To avoid charge carrier recombination during the diffusion, the concentration of defects in the solid must be small. This imposes severe requirements on the purity of the semiconductor material, rendering solid-state devices of the conventional type expensive.
We have developed a new molecular photovoltaic system for solar light harvesting and conversion to electricity. It is based on the spectral sensitization of a thin ceramic membrane by suitable transition-metal complexes. The film consists of nanometersize colloidal titanium dioxide particles sintered together to allow for charge carrier transport. When derivatized with a suitable chromophore, these membranes yield extraordinary efficiencies for the conversion of incident photons into electric current, exceeding 90% for certain transition metal complexes within the wavelength range of their absorption band. In this article, we discuss the underlying physical principles of these astonishing findings. Exploiting this discovery, we have developed a new type of photovoltaic device whose overall light-to-electric-energy conversion yield is 12–15% in diffuse day-light and 10% under direct (AM1.5) solar irradiation.