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Amorphous silicon is a non-crystalline semiconductor material that has no long-range order, often used in thin film photovoltaic modules.

Used as semiconductor material for a-Si solar cells, or thin-film silicon solar cells, it is deposited in thin films onto a variety of flexible substrates, such as glass, metal and plastic. Amorphous silicon cells generally feature low efficiency, but are one of the most environmentally friendly photovoltaic technologies, since they do not use any toxic heavy metals such as cadmium or lead.[citation needed]

As a second-generation thin-film solar cell technology, amorphous silicon was once expected to become a major contributor in the fast-growing worldwide photovoltaic market, but has since lost its significance due to strong competition from conventional crystalline silicon cells and other thin-film technologies such as CdTe and CIGS.[citation needed]

Amorphous silicon differs from other allotropic variations, such as monocrystalline silicon—a single crystal, and polycrystalline silicon, that consists of small grains, also known as crystallites

Description[edit]

Silicon is a fourfold coordinated atom that is normally tetrahedrally bonded to four neighboring silicon atoms. In crystalline silicon (c-Si) this tetrahedral structure continues over a large range, thus forming a well-ordered crystal lattice.

In amorphous silicon this long range order is not present. Rather, the atoms form a continuous random network. Moreover, not all the atoms within amorphous silicon are fourfold coordinated. Due to the disordered nature of the material some atoms have a dangling bond. Physically, these dangling bonds represent defects in the continuous random network and may cause anomalous electrical behavior.

The material can be passivated by hydrogen, which bonds to the dangling bonds and can reduce the dangling bond density by several orders of magnitude. Hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) has a sufficiently low amount of defects to be used within devices such as solar photovoltaic cells, particularly in the protocrystalline growth regime.[1][2] However, hydrogenation is associated with light-induced degradation of the material, termed the Staebler–Wronski effect.[3]

Schematic of allotropic forms of silicon: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and amorphous silicon

Amorphous silicon and carbon[edit]

Amorphous alloys of silicon and carbon (amorphous silicon carbide, also hydrogenated, a-Si1-xCx:H) are an interesting variant. Introduction of carbon atoms adds extra degrees of freedom for control of the properties of the material. The film could also be madetransparent to visible light.

Increasing concentrations of carbon in the alloy widen the electronic gap between conduction and valence bands (also called “optical gap” and bandgap). This can potentially increase the light efficiency of solar cells made with amorphous silicon carbide layers. On the other hand, the electronic properties as a semiconductor (mainly electron mobility), are adversely affected by the increasing content of carbon in the alloy, due to the increased disorder in the atomic network.

Several studies are found in the scientific literature, mainly investigating the effects of deposition parameters on electronic quality, but practical applications of amorphous silicon carbide in commercial devices are still lacking.

Properties[edit]

The density of amorphous Si has been calculated as 4.90×1022 atom/cm3 (2.285 g/cm3) at 300 K. This was done using thin (5 micron) strips of amorphous silicon. This density is 1.8±0.1% less dense than crystalline Si at 300 K.[4] Silicon is one of the few elements than expands upon cooling and has a lower density as a solid than as a liquid.

Hydrogenated amorphous silicon[edit]

Unhydrogenated a-Si has a very high defect density which leads to undesirable semiconductor properties such as poor photoconductivity and prevents doping which is critical to engineering semiconductor properties. By introducing hydrogen during the fabrication of amorphous silicon, photoconductivity is significantly improved and doping is made possible. Hydrogenated amorphous silicon, a-Si:H, was first fabricated in 1969 by Chittick, Alexander and Sterling by deposition using a silane gas (SiH4) precursor. The resulting material showed a lower defect density and increased conductivity due to impurities. Interest in a-Si:H came when (in 1975), LeComber and Spear discovered the ability for substitutional doping of a-Si:H using phosphine (n-type) or diborane (p-type).[5] The role of hydrogen in reducing defects was verified by Paul’s group at Harvard who found a hydrogen concentration of about 10 atomic % through IR vibration, which for Si-H bonds has a frequency of about 2000 cm−1.[6] Starting in the 1970’s, a-Si:H was developed in solar cells by RCA by which steadily climbed in efficiency to about 14% in 1989.[5]

Deposition processes[edit]

CVD PECVD Catalytic CVD Sputtering
Type of film a-Si:H a-Si:H a-Si:H a-Si
Unique application Large-area electronics Hydrogen-free deposition
Chamber temperature 600C 30-300C 30-1000C
Active element temperature 2000C
Chamber pressure 0.1-10 Torr 0.1-10 Torr 0.001-0.1 Torr
Physical principle Thermolysis Plasma-induced dissociation Thermolysis Ionization of Si source
Facilitators W/Ta heated wires Argon cations
Typical drive voltage RF 13.56 MHz; 0.01-1W/cm2
Si source SiH4 gas SiH4 gas SiH4 gas crusible
Substrate temperature controllable controllable controllable controllable

Applications[edit]

While a-Si suffers from lower electronic performance compared to c-Si, it is much more flexible in its applications. For example, a-Si layers can be made thinner than c-Si, which may produce savings on silicon material cost.

One further advantage is that a-Si can be deposited at very low temperatures, e.g., as low as 75 degrees Celsius. This allows for deposition on not only glass, but plastic as well, making it a candidate for a roll-to-roll processing technique. Once deposited, a-Si can be doped in a fashion similar to c-Si, to form p-type or n-type layers and ultimately to form electronic devices.

Another advantage is that a-Si can be deposited over large areas by PECVD. The design of the PECVD system has great impact on the production cost of such panel, therefore most equipment suppliers put their focus on the design of PECVD for higher throughput, that leads to lower manufacturing cost[7] particularly when the silane is recycled.[8]

Photovoltaics[edit]

The “Teal