Interaction of light with the ZnO surface: Photon induced oxygen "breathing," oxygen vacancies, persistent photoconductivity, and persistent photovoltage Academic Article uri icon


  • ZnO surfaces adsorb oxygen in the dark and emit CO2 when exposed to white light, reminiscent of the lungs of living creatures. We find that this exchange of oxygen with the ambient affects the integrity of the ZnO surface. Thus, it forms a basis for several interesting surface phenomena in ZnO, such as photoconductivity, photovoltage, and gas sensing, and has a role in ZnO electrical conduction. Using x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy on ZnO nanowires, we observed a decomposition of ZnO under white light and formation of oxygen-depleted surface, which explains photoconductivity by the electron donation of oxygen vacancies. Our findings suggest that the observed decomposition of the ZnO lattice may only take place due to photon-induced reduction of ZnO by carbon containing molecules (or carbo-photonic reduction), possibly from the ambient gas, accounting in a consistent way for both the reduced demands on the energy required for decomposition and for the observed emission of lattice oxygen in the form of CO2. The formation of oxygen-vacancy rich surface is suggested to induce surface delta doping, causing accumulation of electrons at the surface, which accounts for both the increase in conductivity and the flattening of the energy bands. Using surface photovoltage spectroscopy in ultra high vacuum, we monitored changes in the deep level spectrum. We observe a wide optical transition from a deep acceptor to the conduction band, which energy position coincides with the position of the so called “green luminescence” in ZnO. This green transition disappears with the formation of surface oxygen vacancies. Since the oxygen vacancies are donors, while the green transition involves surface acceptors, the results suggest that the initial emission of oxygen originates at the defect sites of the latter, thereby eliminating each other. This suggests that the green transition originates at surface Zn vacancy acceptors. Removing an oxygen atom from a Zn vacancy completes the vacancy to become a full ZnO molecule vacancy, which does not produce deep levels. Our results explain why ZnO finds use as an electrical detector for oxygen and for carbon containing gas molecules. They may also shed new light on photocatalytic uses of ZnO. It is suggested that similar surface phenomena may affect other semiconducting oxides.

publication date

  • January 1, 2014