In the past two decades, organic materials have been extensively investigated by numerous research groups worldwide for implementation in organic photovoltaic (OPV) devices. The interest in organic semiconductors is spurred by their potential low cost and facile tunability, making OPV devices a potentially disruptive technology. To study OPV operating mechanisms is also to explore a knowledge gap in our general understanding of materials, because both the time scales (femtosecond to microsecond) and length scales (nanometer to micrometer) relevant to OPV functionality occupy a challenging and fascinating space between the traditional regimes of quantum chemistry and solid-state physics.New theoretical frameworks and computational tools are needed to bridge the aforementioned length and time scales, and they must satisfy the criteria of computational tractability for systems involving 104-106 atoms, while also maintaining predictive utility. While this challenge is far from solved, advances in density functional theory (DFT) have allowed researchers to investigate the ground- and excited-state properties of many intermediate sized systems (102-103 atoms) that provide the outlines of the larger problem. Results on these smaller systems are already sufficient to predict optical gaps and trends in valence band energies, correct erroneous interpretations of experimental data, and develop models for charge generation and transport in OPV devices.The active films of high-efficiency OPV devices are comprised of mesoscopic mixtures of electron donor (D) and electron acceptor (A) species, a "bulk-heterojunction" (BHJ) device, subject to variable degrees of structural disorder. Depending on the degree of intermolecular electronic coupling and energy level alignment, the spatial delocalization of photoexcitations and charge carriers can affect the dynamics of the solar cell. In this Account, we provide an overview of three pivotal characteristics of solar cells that possess strong delocalization dependence: (1) the exciton binding energy, (2) charge transfer at the D-A heterojunction, and (3) the energy landscape in the vicinity of the D-A heterojunction. In each case, the length scale dependence can be assessed through DFT calculations on reference systems, with a view to establishing general trends. Throughout the discussion, we draw from the experimental and theoretical literature to provide a consistent view of what is known about these properties in actual BHJ blends. A consistent interpretation of the results to date affords the following view: transient delocalization effects and resonant charge transfer at the heterojunction are capable of funneling excitations away from trap states and mediating exciton dissociation; these factors alone are capable of explaining the remarkably good charge generation currently achieved in OPV devices. The exciton binding energy likely plays a minimal role in modern OPV devices, since the presence of the heterojunction serves to bypass the costly exciton-to-free-charge transition state.
ASJC Scopus subject areas