Tuning the thermal conductivity of solar cell polymers through side chain engineering†
Thermal transport is critical to the performance and reliability of polymer-based energy devices, ranging from solar cells to thermoelectrics. This work shows that the thermal conductivity of a low band gap conjugated polymer, poly(4,8-bis-alkyloxybenzo[1,2-b:4,5-b′]dithiophene-2,6-diyl-alt-(alkylthieno[3,4-b]thiophene-2-carboxylate)-2,6-diyl) (PBDTTT), for photovoltaic applications can be actively tuned through side chain engineering. Compared to the original polymer modified with short branched side chains, the engineered polymer using all linear and long side chains shows a 160% increase in thermal conductivity. The thermal conductivity of the polymer exhibits a good correlation with the side chain lengths as well as the crystallinity of the polymer characterized using small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) experiments. Molecular dynamics simulations and atomic force microscopy are used to further probe the molecular level local order of different polymers. It is found that the linear side chain modified polymer can facilitate the formation of more ordered structures, as compared to the branched side chain modified ones. The effective medium theory modelling also reveals that the long linear side chain enables a larger heat carrier propagation length and the crystalline phase in the bulk polymer increases the overall thermal conductivity. It is concluded that both the length of the side chains and the induced polymer crystallization are important for thermal transport. These results offer important guidance for actively tuning the thermal conductivity of conjugated polymers through molecular level design.