Finding Your Place in the Sun


Nasser Karam, Spectrolab's vice president for optoelectronic products and advanced programs, boasts a Ph.D. from the highly regarded materials engineering program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, but he doesn't care much about advanced degrees and Ivy League credentials. What matters most, as Karam sees it, are passion, uniqueness, and good chemistry.

"That's probably not a conventional approach," says Karam. "People who have the passion don't necessarily have a high degree. We [Spectrolab's research team] have people from Stanford, and we have people with no degrees, and they all contribute equally."

Karam's approach may be unconventional, but it is effective. Under Karam's leadership, Spectrolab's team of physicists and engineers has developed a new solar-cell technology that triples the solar-energy conversion efficiency of devices currently in production.

In an industry dominated by inexpensive amorphous-silicon films with efficiencies of about 10%, Spectrolab's multijunction devices convert 34% of incident solar energy into electricity--a world record. And these devices are engineered so they don't overheat when exposed to intense, highly concentrated sunlight. That means that less material is needed, which in turn means considerable cost savings. Karam hopes to have a product ready for market within 2 years.

From the Earth to the Moon--and Back Again

Located near Los Angeles and employing almost 500 people, including 37 R&D scientists and engineers, Spectrolab is not an energy company in the usual sense. Most of the company's current products are deployed in space. Spectrolab started in 1956, supplying optical filters to the entertainment industry. Soon the company shifted gears and began building solar cells. Spectrolab's solar panels went into space for the first time on Pioneer I, in 1958. In 1959 its solar arrays powered Pioneer II, the satellite that took the first photograph of Earth from space. Spectrolab solar cells also went to the moon with Apollo 11, in 1969.

Over 4 decades, Spectrolab has gradually raised the bar for the performance of space-based solar systems, striving to meet the energy demands of increasingly complex and sophisticated communications satellites, especially those produced by parent company Hughes Space and Communications Company. (Hughes was acquired by Boeing in late 2000, so now Spectrolab's parent company is known as Boeing Satellite Systems.)

While scientists and engineers developing Earth-based solar-energy systems put much of their energy into cost reduction, the economics of space-based technology kept Spectrolab focused squarely on high-efficiency, high-value devices. In space, compact size and low weight are premiums, and the costs of satellites and satellite deployment justify the use of more expensive technologies. So while Earth-based solar-energy companies struggled to compete with cheap and subsidized fossil fuels, Spectrolab had a ready market for its relatively expensive technologies.

According to Karam, the first multijunction solar cell was built in the early 1980s by one of his North Carolina State University mentors. Karam's Spectrolab team took the technology out of the drawer in 1996 and embarked on a program of steady, incremental improvement, until late last year the team's three-layer InGaP/GaAs/Ge solar-energy module broke the company's own world record with an in-space efficiency exceeding 30%.

Spectrolab's technological progress was incremental, more perspiration than inspiration. The breakthrough, if there was one, came in realizing that, thanks to many hard-won incremental improvements in efficiency, its technology was approaching competitiveness with terrestrial solar-energy products, especially in situations where a smaller form factor was desirable.

When Spectrolab brought its space-age technology back to Earth, people took notice right away. Because of differences in the solar spectrum on Earth and in space, and in how efficiency is calculated, the same device that managed 30% in space achieved, without modification, an astonishing 34% on Earth, making it the first device to clear DOE's "one-third of the sun" hurdle. Says Karam, "Folks were used to silicon-based technology that had efficiencies in the teens, and they were astonished to see the kind of efficiencies we were getting." In 2000, Spectrolab's new solar cell won a Top 100 Award from R&D Magazine.

Spectrolab's three-layer films cost more to produce than amorphous silicon, but their superior efficiency justifies the use of concentrators, which focus the sun's energy onto a small area. Concentrating sunlight isn't a new idea, but Karam says it usually isn't cost-effective for inexpensive, low-efficiency materials. "Silicon is dirt cheap and the efficiency is pretty low, so it doesn't justify concentration. Now that the efficiencies have gotten higher and higher, it [the new device] could become viable on Earth, because you can bring the cost down if you can use it in a concentrator configuration." Terrestrial systems will concentrate the sun's energy by several hundred times or more, dramatically lowering the cost of the system's photovoltaic materials. According to Karam, a Spectrolab system adequate to power the typical American household will require a triple-junction module only 1 foot square and a concentrator roughly the size and geometry as early home-satellite dishes--which, indeed, the systems will likely very much resemble.

Finding Your Place in the Sun

Karam joined Spectrolab in 1996 and immediately began to assemble a young, vigorous team with broad expertise. Karam has hired experienced people from industry, as well as people right out of college. Group leader Richard King, an expert on electronic devices, was one of Karam's first hires. Together, King and Karam chose Jim Ermer, whose degree is in chemical engineering. Ermer came from the silicon-solar-cell industry, where he developed expertise in thin-film growth techniques. At Spectrolab he has adapted his expertise to the growth of compound semiconductors and multilayer films. Other key team members include Raed Sherif, Hector Cotal, and Greg Glenn, all of whom work on the design of the solar concentrator. Even today, after 5 years of stability, the average age of Spectrolab's R&D team members remains in the low 30s.

Karam learns of potential employees through several channels, official and unofficial. "In some cases [it's] by word of mouth, in other cases through some advertising at either trade shows or some magazines. Sometimes someone who's working at a certain company knows of someone at another company who is very good and is looking to change."

Sometimes first contact is even made with a personal note, often by e-mail. "I receive a lot of e-mails from folks who say, 'Hey, I see what you are doing; that's something I'd very much like to do.' And if they have the right words, then I pick up the phone and we have a dialogue that could end in an interview offer."

"We are always looking for people," says Karam. "Even when we are not hiring, we are always looking for people. Sometimes we have obvious positions that are open, and sometimes we don't. But when we see people who look like right fits, we go after them and the positions can come later."

The right words might get a foot in the door, but they won't get you inside. Getting hired means clearing several levels of review. You'll need passion and expertise, but what's most important, in Karam's view, is the fit. "The most important thing is the chemistry," he says. "Each person contributes different pieces of the puzzle at different times. You can have the most brilliant people and get nothing out of them if the chemistry is not working."

So, if a Ph.D. from an elite school isn't the ticket, how do you get noticed? Karam gets a lot of e-mails. What is the best way to differentiate yourself, to make yourself stand out among a crowded field of potential solar scientists? In Karam's view the best way to differentiate yourself is not to try. Just be yourself.

"Go after what your gut tells you," says Karam. "Don't just follow the crowd. If you are interested in pursuing an area or a dream, address it directly. Don't just go into areas that are popular. Be unique in your approach and your thoughts. Don't pigeonhole yourself by your education, your degree, and your Ivy League school. In many cases it's important, but in many other cases it's not at all critical in hiring."

Follow your passion, Karam argues, and things will fall into place, if not at Spectrolab, then somewhere.

"And most of all," says Karam, "think highly of yourself."

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