Research rock star: Solar star
It’s an exclusive club Dr. W.S. Sampath belongs to.
Not many people can claim to have revolutionized a field of study and product development on a scale with the potential to affect the entire world.
Sampath’s life’s work has been focused on improving solar technology to the point where implementing it as a primary energy source is equal to or even more cost effective than traditional fossil fuels.
His manufacturing process for solar panels using thin-film technology and cadmium telluride marked a major step forward that could impact how the world generates and uses energy for generations to come.
Sampath, a 55-year-old professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University, founded Abound Solar (formerly AVA Solar) in 2007 to commercialize the technology. The company has since grown to employ more than 300 people and has raised more than $250 million in private financing.
“I was thinking that we would just do the research and put it into a publication and some company would take it from there,” Sampath said. “At that time I did not realize there is a lot more that needs to be done other than what you do in a university lab.”
Sampath grew up the son of a scientist in Chemnai, India. He came to the United States in 1980 and earned his masters degree from Arizona State University in 1985. He was hired as a professor at CSU shortly after that and almost immediately began the research that eventually led to his thin-film breakthrough.
He said the federal government opened Palo Verde Nuclear power plant at a cost of about $6 billion in the mid-1980s. When he came to CSU at about the same time, he began doing work for the Anheuser-Busch brewery which opened at a cost of $30 million. Both plants served as an inspiration for Sampath to generate more efficient, safe and cost-effective means of energy production.
The current solar technology Sampath developed allows for between 10 percent and 11 percent of sunlight to be converted to electricity. He is working now to expand that capacity to 20, 30 or even 40 percent one day.
Sampath used to hope he was impacting the lives of the students who enrolled in his courses each year and aided him in his research. His dreams have expanded exponentially in recent years.
“Making solar advances is No. 1 beyond anything else because it means so much,” Sampath said. “You’re not affecting just 10 or 20 people. You’re talking about billions of people on the planet. I’m more focused on making the advances in the research sense.”