Naomi Ginsberg, a faculty chemist with the Physical Biosciences and Materials Sciences Divisions and the University of California Berkeley, led a team that used a unique form of microscopy to study the domain interfaces within an especially high-performing solution-processed organic semiconductor called TIPS-pentacene. She and her team discovered a cluttered jumble of randomly oriented nanocrystallites that become kinetically trapped in the interfaces during solution casting. Like debris on a highway, these nanocrystallites impede the flow of charge-carriers. Organic semiconductors are prized for light emitting diodes (LEDs), field effect transistors (FETs) and photovoltaic cells. As they can be printed from solution, they provide a highly scalable, cost-effective alternative to silicon-based devices. Uneven performances, however, have been a persistent problem. Scientists have known that the performance issues originate in the domain interfaces within organic semiconductor thin films, but have not known the cause.
This mystery now appears to have been solved with the help of transient absorption (TA) microscopy, a technique in which femtosecond laser pulses excite transient energy states and detectors measure the changes in the absorption spectra. The Berkeley researchers carried out TA microscopy on an optical microscope they constructed themselves that enabled them to generate focal volumes that are a thousand times smaller than is typical for conventional TA microscopes. They also deployed multiple different light polarizations that allowed them to isolate interface signals not seen in either of the adjacent domains. The methology developed by Ginsberg and her team to uncover structural motifs at hidden interfaces in organic semiconductor thin films should add a predictive factor to scalable and affordable solution-processing of these materials. In addition to minimizing discontinuities and maximizing charge-carrier mobility, their technique would replace the trial-and-error approach typically taken by researchers.