In semiconductor photovoltaics, photoconversion efficiency is governed by a simple competition: the incident photon energy is either transferred to the crystal lattice (heat) or transferred to electrons. In conventional materials, energy loss to the lattice is more efficient than energy transferred to electrons, thus limiting the power conversion efficiency. Quantum electronic systems, such as quantum dots, nanowires, and two-dimensional electronic membranes, promise to tip the balance in this competition by simultaneously limiting energy transfer to the lattice and enhancing energy transfer to electrons. By exploring the optical, thermal, and electronic properties of quantum materials, we may perhaps find an ideal optoelectronic material that provides low cost fabrication, facile systems integration, and a means to surpass the standard limit for photoconversion efficiency.
Nanoscale carbon materials, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes, provide ideal experimental quantum systems in which to explore optoelectronic behavior for applications in solar energy harvesting. Within essentially the same material, researchers can achieve a broad spectrum of energetic configurations, from a gapless semimetal to a large band-gap semiconducting nanowire. Owing to their nanoscale dimensions, graphene and carbon nanotubes exhibit electronic and optical properties that reflect strong electron–electron interactions. Such strong interactions may lead to exotic low-energy electron transport behavior and high-energy electron scattering processes such as impact excitation and the inverse process of Auger recombination. High-energy processes, which become very important under photoexcitation, may be particularly efficient in nanoscale carbon materials due to the relativistic-like, charged particle band structure and sensitivity to the dielectric environment. In addition, due to the covalently bonded carbon framework that makes up these materials, electron–phonon coupling is very weak. In carbon nanomaterials, strong electron–electron interactions combined with weak electron–phonon interactions results in excellent optical, thermal and electronic properties, the exploration of which promises to reveal fundamentally new physical processes and deliver advanced nanotechnologies.
In this Account, we review the results of novel optoelectronic experiments that explore the intrinsic photoresponse of carbon nanomaterials integrated into nanoscale devices. By fabricating gate voltage-controlled photodetectors composed of atomically thin sheets of graphene and individual carbon nanotubes, we are able to fully explore electron transport in these systems under optical illumination. We find that strong electron–electron interactions play a key role in the intrinsic photoresponse of both materials, as evidenced by hot carrier transport in graphene and highly efficient multiple electron-hole pair generation in nanotubes. In both of these quantum systems, photoexcitation leads to high-energy electron–hole pairs that relax energy predominantly into the electronic system, rather than heating the lattice. Due to highly efficient energy transfer from photons into electrons, graphene and carbon nanotubes may be ideal materials for solar energy harvesting devices with efficiencies that could exceed the Shockley–Queisser limit.