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Photovoltaics Pioneer and NREL Alumna Sarah Kurtz Honored by National Academy of Engineering

March 25, 2020

Two researchers hold a device to measure electrical output of a solar cell.
In 1993, by producing a concentrator solar cell with an efficiency greater than 30%, NREL scientists including Sarah Kurtz (right) passed an important milestone of the Photovoltaics Program. Photo by Warren Gretz, NREL
World-renowned photovoltaics (PV) expert and longtime National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) alumna Sarah Kurtz was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for her contributions to the development of high-efficiency solar cells and leadership in solar cell reliability and quality.

Dr. Kurtz spent more than 30 years at NREL helping to build and further bolster the laboratory’s reputation as a leader in photovoltaics. Starting her career as a postdoc in 1985 at the Solar Energy Research Institute, which became NREL six years later, Dr. Kurtz’s research focused largely on the fields of multijunction photovoltaics, concentrator PV, and PV reliability.

While at NREL, Dr. Kurtz played an integral role in spearheading research on how to grow high-quality solar cells, measuring multijunction cells, and evaluating how their performance is affected under various wavelengths of light. Multijunction solar cells convert sunlight to electricity at the highest efficiencies of any type of solar cell and have proven critical for space- and weight-limited applications, such as powering satellites.

Dr. Kurtz also mentored hundreds of students and researchers, helping to share her knowledge and expertise with the next generation of solar innovators. Dr. Kurtz moved from NREL in 2017 to join the faculty of University of California, Merced.  

“Few have made as large a global impact on solar energy R&D as Sarah,” said Bill Tumas, NREL Associate Laboratory Director for Materials and Chemical Science and Technology. “Her contributions span a very wide range including developing high-efficiency multijunction photovoltaics, creating the science and standards for PV reliability, and providing thought leadership on all almost every aspect of solar energy from fundamental photovoltaics to broad-scale deployment and integration.”

A researcher works with college students as they build solar cell concentrators.
NREL researcher Sarah Kurtz (center) works with college students participating in the Hands-On PV Experience as they build mini solar concentrators outside of NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility during a weeklong immersion at the laboratory in Golden, CO. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

While Dr. Kurtz now resides in California, she remains a part time NREL employee and continues to support NREL through participation in multiple projects including the development of international standards. She is very pleased to make connections between work at NREL and in California—both leading toward a world run on renewable energy.

“I very much appreciate the privilege to work at NREL for so many years,” Dr. Kurtz said. “NREL, with funding from the Department of Energy, provided me critical resources and the opportunity to work with many gifted people. Together, we can build a better world.”

The NAE is part of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Election to the NAE is among the highest professional distinctions that can be accorded to an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature and to the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education. 

Election of new NAE members is the culmination of a yearlong process. The ballot is set in December and the final vote for membership occurs during January.

Dr. Kurtz also holds six patents and has authored or co-authored more than 300 publications and conference proceedings.

For more information about Dr. Kurtz, visit https://www.nrel.gov/research/sarah-kurtz.html. To learn more about National Academy of Engineering, visit https://www.nae.edu/.