Semiconductor heterostructures form the cornerstone of many electronic and optoelectronic devices and are traditionally fabricated using epitaxial growth techniques. More recently, heterostructures have also been obtained by vertical stacking of two-dimensional crystals, such as graphene and related two-dimensional materials. These layered designer materials are held together by van der Waals forces and contain atomically sharp interfaces. Here, we report on a type-II van der Waals heterojunction made of molybdenum disulfide and tungsten diselenide monolayers. The junction is electrically tunable, and under appropriate gate bias an atomically thin diode is realized. Upon optical illumination, charge transfer occurs across the planar interface and the device exhibits a photovoltaic effect. Advances in large-scale production of two-dimensional crystals could thus lead to a new photovoltaic solar technology.
Tungsten diselenide is a semiconductor which consists of three atomic layers. One layer of tungsten is sandwiched between two layers of selenium atoms. “We had already been able to show that tungsten diselenide can be used to turn light into electric energy and vice versa”, says Thomas Mueller. But a solar cell made only of tungsten diselenide would require countless tiny metal electrodes tightly spaced only a few micrometers apart. If the material is combined with molybdenium disulphide, which also consists of three atomic layers, this problem is elegantly circumvented. The heterostructure can now be used to build large-area solar cells.
When light shines on a photoactive material single electrons are removed from their original position. A positively charged hole remains, where the electron used to be. Both the electron and the hole can move freely in the material, but they only contribute to the electrical current when they are kept apart so that they cannot recombine.
To prevent recombination of electrons and holes, metallic electrodes can be used, through which the charge is sucked away - or a second material is added. “The holes move inside the tungsten diselenide layer, the electrons, on the other hand, migrate into the molybednium disulphide”, says Thomas Mueller. Thus, recombination is suppressed.
This is only possible if the energies of the electrons in both layers are tuned exactly the right way. In the experiment, this can be done using electrostatic fields. Florian Libisch and Professor Joachim Burgdörfer (TU Vienna) provided computer simulations to calculate how the energy of the electrons changes in both materials and which voltage leads to an optimum yield of electrical power.