The substrates for OPV devices must satisfy numerous requirements, such as: optical quality of transparency to let light reach the photoactive layer; substrate smoothness in the nanometer range to provide a surface that will promote high-quality deposition of subsequent layers and prevent the penetration of potential substrate spikes or irregularities into the device layers; the ability to support processing at high enough temperatures; good dimensional stability; good resistance to any chemicals used during processing; low water absorption.

Optical properties

Transparency is one of the main characteristics of substrates. Both transparent and non­transparent substrates are suitable for the manufacturing of organic solar cells. However, non transparent substrates constrain some device architectures. The usage of non­transparent substrates requires transparent top electrodes with transparent top barrier layers. Devices on transparent substrates can have their transparent electrode either on top or on the bottom side of the devices or even on both sides, in case of semi-transparent solar cells. However, in most cases, the transparent substrate is combined with a transparent electrode. Such device architecture requires high optical transparency of the electrode as well as the substrate. Also the barrier (directly attached to the substrate or laminated afterwards) should have high optical transparency. In addition, substrates for OPV devices should have low birefringence.

Surface roughness

Thin film devices are very sensitive to surface roughness. High roughness structures over short distances must be avoided, as it can create shorts in the devices. However, an intermediate roughness over long distance is acceptable. Standard metal substrates usually are rough on both scales, while plastic substrates may be rough only over long distances.

Thermal and thermo-mechanical properties

Some processes of solar cells fabrication such as drying annealing and thermal sintering require applying of high temperatures. It is important that maximum fabrication process temperature must be lower then the glass transition temperature of the substrate polymer.

Dimensional stability

Glass substrates have very high dimensional stability. But conventional processing on glass substrates can not be directly transferred on plastic. The thermal contraction mismatch between the substrates and the deposited device film and built-in stresses in these films lead to curving and changing in the in-plane dimension of the substrates. This change causes misalignment between the device layers. Plastic substrates will also change size on exposure to moisture. The first defense against these changes is the selection of substrates with low water absorption and low coefficients of hydroscopic expansion. Appropriate substrate selection and heat stabilization techniques can significantly reduce the size of changes, but they can not eliminate them completely.

Mechanical properties

A high elastic modulus makes the substrate stiff, and a hard surface support the device layer under impact.

Chemical properties

The substrates should not release contaminants and should be inert against process chemicals.

Barrier properties

Barrier properties of the substrates against permeation of atmospheric gasses such as water and oxygen can be the biggest advantage of the substrates.

Electrical properties

Some substrates, such as metal foil or ITO coated plastic foils are conductive. These conductive substrates may serve as an electrode in solar cell architecture.

The main substrates used for the manufacturing of organic photovoltaic devices are glass, plastic and metal foil. The properties of typical substrate materials are given in Table 2.




Stainless steel

Weight, mg/m2 (for 100-pm-thik film)




Transmission in the visible range (%)




Maximum process temperature (°С)




TCE (ppm/°C)




Elastic modulus (Gpa)




Permeability for oxygen and moisture




Coefficient of hydrolytic expansion





Planarization necessary




Electrical conductivity




Thermal conductivity




Table 2. Comparison of PEN, stainless steel and glass substrates (Lawrence et al., 2004).

1.1 Metal foil substrates

Metal foil substrates offer the advantages of higher process temperature capability, dimensional stability and excellent barrier properties for oxygen and water. The disadvantages and limitations of the metal foil substrates include non-transparency and surface roughness. However, non-transparent metal foils can be successfully used in some of the device architectures, where illumination of the OPV devices occurs from the top side. The smoothness of the metal substrates can be increased by polishing or by applying additional planarization layers. The planarization layer can be organic, inorganic, or a combination. With high content of organic components, thicker layer of planarization material can be applied without forming cracks and a very smooth surface can be achieved. It is very important for OPV devices, because the electro-active layers are very thin and the chance to have shorts in the devices is much higher with rougher surfaces.

The conductivity of metal substrates can be considered both as an advantage and disadvantage. Sometimes the metal substrate can be served as back contact, but very often the conductive property of the metal substrate is not used. In such case conducting substrates are completely insulated from OPV device by an additional planarizaton layer. Stainless steel has been most commonly used in research because of its high resistance to corrosion and process chemicals, and its long record of application in amorphous silicon solar cells. Stainless steel substrates can tolerate process temperature as high as 1000°C. These substrates are dimensionally stable and have excellent barrier properties against water and oxygen. Generally, stainless steel substrates are more durable then plastic substrates.

Updated: June 16, 2015 — 2:44 pm