Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


Physics and Astronomy

Committee Chair

Alan D Bristow

Committee Co-Chair

Cheng Cen

Committee Member

Lawrence Hornak

Committee Member

Aldo Romero

Committee Member

Nianqiang Wu


Semiconductor photovoltaics (solar-to-electrical) and photocatalysis (solar-to-chemical) requires sunlight to be converted into excited charge carriers with sufficient lifetimes and mobility to drive a current or photoreaction. Thin semiconductor films are necessary to reduce the charge recombination and mobility losses, but thin films also limit light absorption, reducing the solar energy conversion efficiency. Further, in photocatalysis, the band edges of semiconductor must straddle the redox potentials of a photochemical reaction, reducing light absorption to half the solar spectrum in water splitting. Plasmonics transforms metal nanoparticles into antennas with resonances tuneable across the solar spectrum. If energy can be transferred from the plasmon to the semiconductor, light absorption in the semiconductor can be increased in thin films and occur at energies smaller than the band gap.;This thesis investigates why, despite this potential, plasmonic solar energy harvesting techniques rarely appear in top performing solar architectures. To accomplish this goal, the possible plasmonic enhancement mechanisms for solar energy conversion were identified, isolated, and optimized by combining systematic sample design with transient absorption spectroscopy, photoelectrochemical and photocatalytic testing, and theoretical development. Specifically, metal semiconductor nanostructures were designed to modulate the plasmon's scattering, hot carrier, and near field interactions as well as remove heating and self-catalysis effects. Transient absorption spectroscopy then revealed how the structure design affected energy and charge carrier transfer between metal and semiconductor. Correlating this data with wavelength-dependent photoconversion efficiencies and theoretical developments regarding metal-semiconductor interactions identified the origin of the plasmonic enhancement.;Using this methodology, it has first been proven that three plasmonic enhancement routes are possible: i) increasing light absorption in the semiconductor by light trapping through scattering, ii) transferring hot carriers from metal to semiconductor after light absorption in the metal, and iii) non-radiative excitation of interband transitions in the semiconductor by plasmon-induced resonant energy transfer (PIRET). The effects of the metal on charge transport and carrier recombination were also revealed. Next, it has been shown that the strength and balance of the three enhancement mechanisms is rooted in the plasmon's dephasing time, or how long it takes the collective electron oscillations to stop being collective. The importance of coherent effects in plasmonic enhancement is also shown. Based on these findings, a thermodynamic balance framework has been used to predict the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion in plasmonic metal-semiconductor heterojunctions. These calculations have revealed how plasmonics is best used to address the different light absorption problems in semiconductors, and that not taking into account the plasmon's dephasing is the origin of low plasmonic enhancement Finally, to prove these guidelines, each of the three enhancement mechanisms has been translated into optimal device geometries, showing the plasmon's potential for solar energy harvesting.;This dissertation identifies the three possible plasmonic enhancement mechanisms for the first time, discovering a new enhancement mechanism (PIRET) in the process. It has also been shown for the first time that the various plasmon-semiconductor interactions could be rooted in the plasmon's dephasing. This has allowed for the first maximum efficiency estimates which have combined all three enhancement mechanisms to be performed, and revealed that changes in the plasmon's dephasing leads to the disparity in reported plasmonic enhancements. These findings are combined to create optimal device design guidelines, which are proven by fabrication of several devices with top efficiencies in plasmonic solar energy conversion. The knowledge obtained will guide the design of efficient photovoltaics and photocatalysts, helping usher in a renewable energy economy and address current needs of climate change.