Colorado State University Obtains $2.5 Million in Partnership with NSF, Abound Solar to Increase Solar Efficiency

Two of Colorado State University’s most prominent solar scientists have received $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation and Abound Solar to reduce the cost of solar-powered electricity.

Professors W.S. Sampath and Jim Sites have obtained a $1 million NSF Accelerating Innovation Research grant designed to speed up the process of getting innovation into the marketplace – only one of seven grants awarded around the country and the only award for solar. Abound Solar committed $1.5 million for the project as part of a matching-grant requirement.

The challenge: In the next two years, can CSU and Abound Solar scientists reduce solar manufacturing costs to significantly below $1 per watt? The scientists are working with Sampath’s thin-film, cadmium telluride technology that led to the creation of Abound Solar, a company based in Fort Collins that now employs more than 350 people.

“We think we have a novel idea for how to do this,” said Sites, who has conducted solar research at Colorado State since 1974. “If you can increase the efficiency, you cut the price proportionally, assuming you don’t spend extra money to improve efficiency.

“Photovoltaics in general is a collaborative effort of many disciplines including semiconductor physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and chemistry,” Sites added. “Innovations in this field wouldn’t be happening if people of different disciplines hadn’t joined forces.”

As a physics professor, Sites has created unique measurement and analysis tools to determine how well solar cells work. Sampath, who is a mechanical engineering professor, helped created a revolutionary manufacturing process for making the cells that is now used at Abound Solar.

Collaborators on the NSF project are Anders Olsson, senior vice president of Research & Development at Abound Solar and affiliate faculty in CSU’s mechanical engineering department; John Williams, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CSU; and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The project will provide funding for eight graduate students, including two supported by Abound.

“Raising the efficiency of solar modules is very important to Abound Solar,” Olsson said. “It improves Abound’s competitive position and makes it more cost effective for our customers to use our products that will accelerate the migration toward clean and renewable sources of energy.”

“The goal is to bring the cost of solar electricity down to what we’re paying for traditional electricity,” Sampath said.

Sampath and his colleagues, Al Enzenroth and Kurt Barth, began to investigate low-cost photovoltaic solutions – focusing on thin-film cadmium telluride technology – in Sampath’s Materials Engineering Laboratory at CSU in the early 1990s. They formed a spinoff, now called Abound Solar, in 2007. In 2008, Abound attracted $104 million in venture capital – more than any other Colorado company that year – and more recently a $400 million federal loan guarantee that is allowing major expansion of its manufacturing capacity.

Sampath also leads a $2.5 million solar research-and-development center in partnership with industry and his colleague Sites to explore next-generation solar technology funded through the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Program. Additionally, Sampath works with PPG Industries and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee on an alternative strategy to reduce cadmium telluride module costs.