NREL scientists win $1 mln prize for photovoltaic research

8 March 2007 — Two scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have been named Dan David Prize Laureates for 2007. Jerry Olson and Sarah Kurtz will receive their award in a March 8 ceremony in Paris.

The NREL scientists will share the $1 million prize in the Future Time Dimension: Quest for Energy with NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

Olson and Kurtz were selected for their “exceptional and profound contributions to the field of photovoltaic energy,” the prize committee said. Solar cells based on the scientists’ work “have the potential to alleviate the world’s impending energy crisis,” the committee wrote.

The scientists pioneered the multi-junction solar cell, which uses layers of semiconductor material to gain extremely high efficiencies in converting sunlight to electricity. A cell based on Olson’s and Kurtz’s design and manufactured by Spectrolab recently set a world-record conversion efficiency of 40 percent.

Most space satellites use multi-junction solar cells, and the cells power the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

Olson said “I knew we had a winner,” when he thought of the design of the solar cell, but it took years of research by a dedicated team at NREL to reach the point of manufacturable devices. “My greatest reward has been the people I’ve worked with,” Olson said.

The scientists hope the multi-junction devices will help meet electrical needs on Earth through the use of lenses and mirrors that concentrate sunlight on the highly efficient solar cells.

The Dan David Prize annually awards three prizes of $1 million each for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on the world. Each year fields are chosen within the three Time Dimensions – Past, Present and Future. The laureates for 2007 were chosen from the Future field’s “Quest for Energy.”