Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Nanostructured Transition Metal Compounds as Highly Efficient Electrocatalysts for Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells

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Yi-June Huang and Chuan-Pei Lee

Submitted: June 15th, 2020 Reviewed: September 14th, 2020 Published: November 21st, 2020

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.94021

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Nowadays, the requirement of energy increases every year, however, the major energy resource is fossil fuel, a limiting source. Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs) are a promising renewable energy source, which could be the major power supply for the future. Recently, the transition metal component has been demonstrated as potential material for counter electrode of platinum (Pt)-free DSSCs owing to their excellent electrocatalytic ability and their abundance on earth. Furthermore, the transition metal components exist different special nanostructures, which provide high surface area and various electron transport routs during electrocatalytic reaction. In this chapter, transition metal components with different nanostructures used for the application of electrocatalyst in DSSCs will be introduced; the performance of electrocatalyst between intrinsic heterogeneous rate constant and effective electrocatalytic surface area are also be clarified. Final, the advantages of the electrocatalyst with different dimensions (i.e., one to three dimension structures) used in DSSCs are also summarized in the conclusion.


  • counter electrode
  • dye-sensitized solar cells
  • nanostructures
  • and transition metal components

1. Introduction

In this century, the energy requisition and environment caring arrive at the highest point in history. The clean and economical renewable energy resource is urgently needed for us. Photovoltaics, named solar cells, tremendous progress has been achieved in efficiency (η), reproducibility, and stability [1, 2, 3]. It has been considered as one of the most promising renewable energy sources. Photovoltaics are classified to three generations, as shown in Figure 1 [1, 4, 5, 6, 7]. The first-generation solar cells, named silicon-based solar cells or the traditional solar cells, made up of crystalline silicon. These solar cells demonstrate high efficiency and significant demand in the market, but the production cost of crystalline silicon materials limited the large-scale industrial applications. The second-generation is cadmium telluride (CdTe)/cadmium indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) based solar cells. The solar cells could be produced with large-scale and well efficiency (14–22%). The first and second generations are the most widely solar cells at present. However, they are scarcity, the toxicity of materials, high-temperature, and high-vacuum processes that restrict further applications. Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs), classed third-generation solar cells, have gained attention and be regarded as prospective solar cells for the photovoltaic technologies in recent years as potential cost-effective alternatives to the first and second generations solar cells [8, 9, 10, 11]. Furthermore, the DSSCs have outstanding performance in an indoor, dim light environment [12, 13, 14].

Figure 1.

The scheme of three generation photovoltaic solar cells.

Typically, DSSCs are consist of three sections, including photoanode, electrolyte, and counter electrode (CE), that respond to different functions, as shown in Figure 2 [1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10]. The photoanode converts the photon into the electron by the dye. The electrolyte keeps the function of the photoanode by iodine ion. The CE catalyzes the redox reduction in the electrolyte, which is an obvious influence on the photovoltaic performance, long-term stability, and cost of the device. In other words, the CE is a crucial component of DSSCs.

Figure 2.

The scheme of dye-sensitized solar cells and counter electrode (cathode).

The CE is classified into three components, that are electrocatalyst, transparent conducting oxide, and substrate, as shown in Figure 2. Among them, the electrocatalyst is the key factor to promise the function of CE [1, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16]. As shown in Figure 3, between electrolyte and CE, the reaction of reduction iodide/triiodide (I/I3) redox couple is that: The first stage, diffusion, triiodide diffuses from electrolyte bulk to near the CE for regenerating electrolyte. The second stage, decomposition, triiodide decomposes to iodide and iodine. The iodide is used to renew the dye and iodine will go to the next step. The third stage, adsorption, the CE adsorbs iodine near the CE. The fourth stage, electrocatalysis, electrocatalyst catalyzes reduction reaction, transferring iodine to iodide. The final stage, desorption, the CE desorbs iodide to complete regenerate the electrolyte. According to this mechanism, the electrocatalytic ability, it also represents the reaction rate in here, and the specific structure are the major affections for the reduction reaction.

Figure 3.

The scheme of reduction iodide/triiodide (I/I3) redox couple in counter electrode.

The traditional electrocatalyst of DSSCs is Platinum (Pt), which has an outstanding electrocatalytic ability [10, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. However, Pt, noble metal, is rare on earth that present expensive prices and difficult shapes the specific structure. Up to date, there are a few non-Pt nanomaterials that could have comparable electrocatalytic ability to that of Pt. There have two ways to raise the electrocatalytic reduction reaction. The intrinsic electrocatalytic ability of the electrocatalyst is directly related the electrocatalytic ability. In other words, the choice of material is very important. The other way is to design the nanostructure of the electrocatalyst for I3 reduction regarding with the charge transfer route and the surface area.

Transition metal compounds (TMCs) possess d-electron filling in eg orbitals, which promote excellent electrocatalytic performance in partially filled condition [4, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24]. So, they are interested to replace Pt. But most of TMCs still show poorer electrocatalytic ability than Pt. To overcome the challenge, TMCs are synthesized with various nanostructure, which is an important factor for increasing electrocatalytic ability [20, 21, 22, 25]. A nanostructure is defined if any dimension of the structure is lower than 100 nm, the structure is the nanostructure. Basically, nanostructure divides into four groups: zero-dimensional (0D, e.g. nanoparticle, nanocube, etc.), one-dimensional (1D, e.g. nanorod, nanotube, nanoneedle, etc.), two-dimensional (2D, e.g. nanosheet, nanopental etc.) and hierarchical nanostructures, as shown in Figure 4. In view of 1D, 2D, and hierarchical nanostructures have complex structure. In this chapter, we will systematically discuss their plural strategies (including high electrochemical surface area, directional electron transferring pathways, decrease diffusion control, etc.) to promote the electrocatalytic ability for DSSCs performance.

Figure 4.

The scheme of zero-dimensional (0D), one-dimensional (1D), two-dimensional (2D), and hierarchical nanostructure.


2. One-dimensional nanostructure (1D)

One-dimensional TMCs nanostructure is expected that it provides the 1D electron transfer pathways, promoting electrolyte penetration, and more reaction area [26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34]. However, the vertical 1D structure is rarely obtained because it is difficult to synthesize. Herein, we focus on that the 1D structure has been directly obtained without the template method, in Figures 5 and 6. Their corresponding efficiencies are listed in Table 1. In Figure 5, it shows horizontal 1D TMCs nanostructure SEM images of MoN nanorod, W18O49 nanowire, NiS nanorod, CoSe2 nanorod, Co0.85Se nanotubes, CoSe2/CoSeO3 nanorod, and Ni3S4 nanorod that were synthesized by Song et al., Zhou et al., Yang et al., Sun et al., Yuan et al., Huang et al., and Huang et al., respectively [27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33]. Song et al. reported that MoN nanorod morphology reveals enhancement of diffusion kinetics for the active electrochemical process, as shown in Figure 5a [27]. So that the MoN nanorod has higher VOC and JSC than MoN nanoparticle. Zhou synthesized W18O49 nanowire (Figure 5b), having oxygen vacancies within the range of WO2.625 to WO3, via the solvothermal method [28]. Their efficiency is 4.85% for Co ion electrolyte. Yang et al. obtained NiS nanorod (Figure 5c), which is α type, through chemical bath method [29]. It has η of 5.20%, which is better than the nanoparticle NiS (4.20%). The reason is that the nanorod affords lower charge transfer resistance than the nanoparticle. Sun et al. acquired CoSe2 nanorod (Figure 5d), possessing a single orthorhombic crystal structure, by hydrothermal method [30]. The CoSe2 nanorod exits the excellent performance (10.20%), even better than the Pt. They remind that single CoSe2 nanorod has great electrocatalytic ability, lower charge resistance, and higher adsorption capacity for electrolyte. Yuan et al. prepared Co0.85Se nanotubes (Figure 5e) by a simple hydrothermal method [31]. It shows η of 5.34%, which lower than Pt, obviously. Huang et al. obtained CoSe2/CoSeO3 nanorod (Figure 5f) through a microemulsion-assisted hydrothermal synthesis [32]. It reveals η of 7.54%, which is approach Pt performance. This result contributes to the 1D electron transfer pathways. Huang et al. synthesized the Ni3S4 nanorod (Figure 5g) via a one-pot colloidal synthesis [33]. And it has η of 7.31%, which is quite close Pt. As listed in Table 1, there have a few of the 1D TMCs nanostructures existing the better performance than the Pt.

Figure 5.

The SEM of horizontal 1D nanostructure with (a) MoN, (b) W18O49, (c) NiS, (d) CoSe2, (e) Co0.85Se, (f) CoSe2/CoSeO3, (g) Ni3S4 [27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33].

Figure 6.

The pseudo-vertical 1D nanostructure with (a) and (b) CoS and (c) and (d) Co0.85Se [26, 34].

Materialsη (%)VOC (V)JSC (mA cm−2)FFη/ηPtRef

Table 1.

A partial list of literature on the DSSCs with 1D TMCs nanostructure based CEs.

Most of them are vertical 1D TMCs nanostructures. The horizontal 1D TMCs nanostructures could not support the vertical electron transfer pathways and promote the electrolyte penetration. So most of them display lower performance than the Pt.

The vertical 1D TMCs nanostructure is an ideal condition, as shown in Figure 4. Kung et al. and Jin et al. directly synthesized pseudo-vertical 1D nanostructure array with CoS and Co0.85Se, respectively, as shown in Figure 6 [26, 34]. This structure sufficiently acts the 1D TMCs nanostructure advantages, including favorable for fast diffusion of redox species within the CE film, 1D direction electron channel, enhance electrolyte penetration, and more reaction area. Both of them exhibit higher value of η than Pt. In other words, they could straightly replace the Pt function for CE in DSSCs.


3. Two-dimensional (2D)

Geim and Grigorieva classified 2D materials into three groups [35]. First group, graphene type contains graphene, fluorographene, graphene oxide, hBN, etc.; second group, 2D chalcogenides (transition metal) type includes MoS2, NbS2, NbSe2, CoSe2, MoSe2, ZrSe2, GaSe, GaTe, InSe, Bi2Se3, Bi2Te3, etc.; final group, 2D oxides type involves TiO2, MnO2, V2O5, RuO2, perovskite-based materials (LaNb2O7, Ba4Ti3O12, Ca2Ta2TiO10etc.), hydroxides (Ni(OH)2, Eu(OH)2, etc.), etc. Research of 2D TMCs nanostructure is intensified in recently [16, 36]. The bandgap energy is reduced by decreasing the layer of the TMCs [16, 35, 37, 38, 39, 40]. In other words, a single or a few layers of the 2D TMCs nanostructure presents excellent electrocatalytic ability. Besides that, the 2D TMCs nanostructure has advantages including enhancing the diffusion of electrolyte, vertical electron channel, and special optical property.

In this section, the partial works of literature are chosen depending on the electrocatalytic performance and structure. Their corresponding SEM images and efficiency parameters are shown in Figures 7 and 8, and Table 2, respectively. In Figure 7, Ibrahem et al., Huang et al., and Mohammadnezhad et al. applied the horizontal 2D nanostructure with NbSe2, MoSe2, and Cu2ZnSnSxSe4-x in CE for DSSCs [41, 42, 43]. Ibrahem et al. reported that the NbSe2 nanosheet (Figure 7a) has the best performance among nanosheet, nanorod, and nanoparticle [41]. They mention that nanosheet could provide high surface area and coverage. And the NbSe2 nanosheet existed η of 7.73%, which is better than the Pt CE. The result indicates that NbSe2 nanosheet substitutes to the noble metal Pt in DSSCs. Following the idea, MoSe2 and Cu2ZnSnSxSe4-x nanosheet show the η of 7.58% and 5.73%, respectively. However, both of their values of η are lower than the Pt. To increase the performance of 2D TMCs nanostructure, the pseudo-vertical 2D nanostructure was synthesized and provide the vertical electron channel. The pseudo-vertical 2D nanostructure with MoS2, CoSe2, MoS2, CuxZnySnzS, and CoNi2S4 were obtained by Antonelou et al., Chiu et al., Raj et al., Chiu et al., and Patil et al., respectively [44, 45, 46, 47, 48]. Antonelou et al. obtained the MoS2 nanosheet with η of 8.40%, which has thicknesses down to the 1-2 nm scale. Chiu et al. acquired the nanoclimbing-wall-like CoSe2 (Figure 8a) through an electrodeposition process, by using bathes with different pH values.

Figure 7.

The SEM of 2D nanostructure with (a) NbSe2, (b) MoSe2, (c) Cu2ZnSnSxSe4-x [41, 42, 43].

Figure 8.

The pseudo-vertical 2D nanostructure with (a) CoSe2, (b) MoS2, and (c) CoNi2S4 [45, 46, 47, 48].

Materialsη (%)VOC (V)JSC (mA cm−2)FFη/ηPtRef

Table 2.

A partial list of literature on the DSSCs with 2D TMCs nanostructure based CEs.

Its performance is 8.92%. They mentioned that vertical nanowall provides conducting charge for electrocatalytic reduction, as shown in Figure 9a. Raj et al. synthesized reflectivity of MoS2 nanosheet (Figure 8b), which has η of 7.50%, through chemical vapor deposition (CVD). The reflectivity of MoS2 nanosheet is raised their high reflectivity facilitates the absorbance of more photons, and more active edge sites exposed to redox couple in the electrolyte, as shown in Figure 9b. Chiu et al. gained CuxZnySnzS nanowall-structure by thermal solvent method, and it shows performance 7.44%. The performance is attributed to improves the carrier transport pathway and effectively reduces the interface resistance. Patil et al. utilized a simple one-step solution-based fabrication method for CoNi2S4 interconnected nanosheet (Figure 8c). The CoNi2S4 exhibits η of 8.86%, which attributes to a larger active surface area with favorable charge transport. The pseudo-vertical 2D nanostructure has obviously improvement of electrocatalytic ability than the normal 2D nanostructure. It is not only providing vertical transport pathways and active surface area but also contributes to reflection photon. Those properties make 2D TMCs nanostructure have the potential to alternative Pt as an electrocatalyst.

Figure 9.

The mechanism of 2D nanostructure with (a) CoSe2 and (b) MoS2 [45, 46].


4. Hierarchical nanostructure

Basically, 0D nanostructure possesses a high reaction area; 1D and 2D nanostructure offers directional electron pathways and enhance electrolyte penetration. But they have their own weakness. For example, 0D nanostructure is easy aggregation and has larger heterogeneous resistance; 1D and 2D nanostructure have lower reaction area. A hierarchical nanostructure consists of the nanostructure with multidimensional subunits (0D, 1D, and 2D). It merges various subunits, so it has multidimensional nanostructure advantages, including high reaction area, benefit electron transfer, avoiding aggregation, enhance electrolyte diffusion, and offer directional electron pathways.

Herein, we list partial literature with hierarchical TMCs nanostructure. Figure 10 shows SEM of Ni3Se4 with sea urchins-like structure, TiO1.1Se0.9 with nanospheres and 1D nanorods, NiCo0.2 with hollow structure and nanoclusters, NiCo2S4 with ball-in-ball structure, NiS@MoS2 with feather duster-like hierarchical structure, CoSe2/CoSeO3 with hierarchical urchin-like structure, CuO/Co3O4 with core-shell structure and CoS2/NC@Co-WS2 with yolk-shell structure by Lee et al., Li et al., Jiang et al., Jiang et al., Su et al., Huang et al., Liao et al., and Huang et al., respectively [49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56]. And their efficiency parameters are listed in Table 3. Lee et al. synthesized the Ni3Se4 sea urchins-like structure (Figure 10a) through one-step and low temperature hydrothermal process [49]. It reveals η of 8.31%, which attribute to the high active electrocatalytic surface area. Li et al. obtained TiO1.1Se0.9 with nanospheres and 1D nanorods (Figure 10b) via a simple dip-coating process and rapid thermal annealing (RTA) process [50]. The TiO1.1Se0.9 exhibits η of 9.47%, which is better than the Pt. The result is established that the nanospheres can work as electro-catalytic active sites, and the nanorods can function not only as electro-catalytic active sites but also as fast electron transport channels, as shown in Figure 11a. Jiang et al. synthesized NiCo0.2 hollow structure and nanoclusters, having uniform spherical particles with an average diameter of about 2 μm and shell thickness of around 200 nm (Figure 10c), via a thermal method [51]. It shows η of 9.30% and displays that the novel spherical structures can efficiently promote the transfer of electrons from the conductive carbon frameworks to metal nanoparticles, thus resulting in high electrocatalytic activity for the reduction. Jiang et al. acquired NiCo2S4 ball-in-ball structure (Figure 10d) by a thermal method [52]. Its efficiency is 9.49%, which is attributed to the rougher surface, higher surface area, and high diffusion coefficient for redox. Su et al. obtained NiS@MoS2 feather duster-like hierarchical structure, which has η of 8.58% [53]. They propose that feather duster-like hierarchical structure array can support the fast electron transfer and electrolyte diffusion channels, moreover, it also can render abundant active catalytic sites and large electron injection efficiency from CE to the electrolyte. Huang et al. gained CoSe2/CoSeO3 hierarchical urchin-like structure (Figure 10g), the nanoparticle-composed sphere is the central core with a diameter of about 50 nm surrounded by several hexagonal prisms, through a one-step hydrothermal method [54]. The CoSe2/CoSeO3 reveals η of 9.29% and is mention that the urchin-like structure possessing the hexagonal prism structure and nanoparticles to provide both rapid electron transport routes and a reasonably high surface area for electro-catalytic reactions, as shown in Figure 11b. Liao et al. obtained CuO/Co3O4 core-shell structure (Figure 10f) via a facile self-templated method [55]. The CuO/Co3O4 has η of 8.34% and an excellent electronic transmission channel and more adsorption sites for the redox couple, which greatly enhances the subsequent redox process. Huang et al. acquired CoS2/NC@Co-WS2 with yolk-shell structure (Figure 10g) [56]. By virtue of larger surface area and more effective active sites, the CoS2/NC@Co-WS2 (η of 9.21%) has better performance than the Pt.

Figure 10.

The SEM of hierarchical nanostructure with (a) Ni3Se4, (b) TiO1.1Se0.9, (c) NiCo0.2, (d) NiCo2S4, (e) CoSe2/CoSeO3, (f) CuO/Co3O4, and (g) CoS2/NC@Co-WS2 [49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56].

Materialsη (%)VOC (V)JSC (mA cm−2)FFη/ηPtRef

Table 3.

A partial list of literature on the DSSCs with hierarchical TMCs nanostructure based CEs.

Figure 11.

The mechanism of hierarchical nanostructure with (a) TiO1.1Se0.9 and (b) CoSe2/CoSeO3 [50, 54].

In this section, it can be found that the hierarchical TMCs nanostructure has better performance than the Pt in CE. In other words, they can efficiently raise the TMCs performance, so the hierarchical TMCs nanostructure could replace Pt directly.


5. Conclusion

The electrocatalytic ability of catalysts is usually determined by below two points: one is the intrinsic electrocatalytic activity, and another is the nanostructure. The nanostructure of TMCs can briefly be classified into 0D, 1D, 2D, and hierarchical nanostructures; those have different properties and could obviously affect the electrocatalytic ability. Herein, the partial reports about DSSCs with the electrocatalysts having 1D, 2D, or hierarchical nanostructures are selected for introduction and discussion. 1D nanostructure possesses several advantages, including the 1D electron transfer pathways, promoting electrolyte penetration, avoiding stack problem, and high reaction area. However, not all the electrocatalysts with 1D nanostructure show better performance than the Pt in DSSC application. Some of them lied down on substrate; so, the advantage on vertical electron transport rout is not given. Furthermore, as the stacking problem comes out, it will lose surface are for reaction. 2D nanostructures possess the active site on edges or defects, and their 2D structure could provide the benefits below, such as directional electron and diffusion channels; these properties boost their DSSC performances obviously. However, the stacking problem and poor activity on basal plane of 2D materials also retarding their practical performance in DSSCs. Hierarchical nanostructure incorporates the profits of subunits, so it displays high reaction area, benefit electron transport rout, avoiding aggregation, enhanced electrolyte diffusion, etc. Several reports already demonstrated that the TMCs with hierarchical nanostructures show excellent electrocatalytic ability in DSSCs; they even exhibit better electrocatalytic performance than that of Pt.



This work was supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) of Taiwan, under grant numbers 107-2113-M-845-001-MY3.


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Written By

Yi-June Huang and Chuan-Pei Lee

Submitted: June 15th, 2020 Reviewed: September 14th, 2020 Published: November 21st, 2020