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Ajeet Rohatgi strives to light up the world

Reetika Khanna Nijhawan Email Reetika Khanna Nijhawan
September 2009
Ajeet Rohatgi strives to light up the world

Harnessing solar energy has been Ajeet Rohatgi’s vision since his early days in Kanpur, India. He routinely witnessed how electricity, or lack thereof, affected quality of life. To him, the solution lay in plain sight – free and renewable solar power. It soon became his passion in life, the focus of his energy. “I am married to solar!” he quips.

Over the last three decades, Dr. Rohatgi, a Regents’ Professor at Georgia Tech and founder of the solar company Suniva, has garnered much success and kudos developing solar cells. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently honored him as an Individual Climate Protection Award Winner in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Beneath Rohatgi’s composed demeanor one senses a fervent dedication to a cause. “There are millions of people around the world who have to get by without electricity,” he says. “I know that that can be changed – without burning fossil fuels, without endangering the planet.”

His dedication can be traced to his days in India, not just recognizing the potential impact of solar power, but also seeing how education could lead him down a path to make a difference. Education and politics were critical elements in the Rohatgi home in Kanpur. His mother was a professor at Kanpur University, his father a dentist. “My granduncle, Dr. Murarilal Rohatgi was a well-known nationalist,” he says. “As a child I remember Nehruji’s visits to our home.”

Surrounded by intellectuals, doctors and engineers, Rohatgi’s trajectory was almost preordained. In 1971, he graduated from IIT Kanpur and, like many peers and family members, headed to the US, which was “almost like coming to a second home.”

In 1973, Rohatgi earned a master’s degree in materials engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. From there, he headed to Lehigh University to receive a PhD in metallurgy and materials science in 1977. Compelled by his desire to work with all things solar, Rohatgi joined Westinghouse Research and Development Centre. “That was a great opportunity for me,” he says. “Until then I had only been working on semi-conductors, which are closer to integrated circuits, but here I could go after what I had always wanted.”

The move to Georgia Tech in 1985 positioned Rohatgi even closer to his objective. “Working with photovoltaic (PV) cells is not just a profession for me, it is a passion,” he says. A passion that is fueled by the knowledge that his innovations could better peoples’ lives and protect the environment.

At Georgia Tech, Rohatgi launched a solar program, and “by 1992 we became the only the only university in this country that could do research all the way from materials to systems,” he says. In keeping with the Department of Energy’s proposition, the center at Georgia Tech began liaising with over forty companies working in the same area, a move that benefited both – the companies with cutting edge technology, and Rohatgi’s team with resources and feedback.

Along the way. Rohatgi has accumulated numerous honors and awards for his pioneering work. In addition to being a Westinghouse Fellow, he received the Georgia Tech Distinguished Professor Award in 1996, followed by the IEEE PVSC William Cherry Award and the NREL/DOE Rappaport Award for his contributions to Photovoltaics. More recently, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) recognized Rohatgi for his invaluable contribution to solar technology.

By the time Dr.Rohatgi had developed a PV cell with the efficiency range of about 16 to 17 percent (where that percentage of sunlight falling on the cell would be converted into electricity), New Enterprise Associates Inc. brought a sustainable source of capital to his door. Dr. Rohatgi never pictured himself as a marketer, and he was unsure how his research would morph into a product that could be sold. In spite of his initial reservations, the company Suniva took shape in 2007 with a mission to manufacture and market high-efficiency, low-cost solar cells. John Baumstark serves as the CEO of Suniva; Rohatgi wears the CTO title and generously credits Baumstark for the startup’s remarkable success.

Governor Sonny Perdue’s attendance at the inauguration of Suniva’s 70,000-square-foot facility in Norcross is testimony to Georgia’s rising interest in solar technology. With a state law that offers tax credits and federal stimulus funds for renewable energy, Suniva’s launch could not have been timed better.

Rohatgi was recently invited to the White House as part of President Obama’s plan to invest more money in renewable energy. “I think we were invited because he wanted to showcase companies like Suniva that spun out of universities or federal funding,” he says. “We are kind of a poster child for that as we, at Georgia Tech, were a DOE Center of Excellence.”

On Suniva’s website, a “Made in USA” label is an instant attention-grabber. “There is a big push from President Obama – he wants to make sure whatever is installed here – in federal buildings for example – should be made in USA,” Rohatgi says. “We stand to benefit by keeping jobs here. Everybody wants to see manufacturing coming back to US.”

Rohatgi confesses his day begins and ends with work. Even on weekends, when he enjoys talking to family members and playing sports such as tennis and golf, he often puts in a few hours of work. “Just looking at his schedule exhausts me,” says Carla Crippins, the Administrative Coordinator at Georgia Tech.

Apart from spearheading the research at Suniva and engaging in fund-raising activities, Rohatgi continues to teach at Georgia Tech. Not surprisingly, the solar cell course is his favorite. Rohatgi delights in firing-up his students. “I quickly train the new students,” he says. “I put them at a level where they are making the world’s best cell and then it is a challenge for them to better that. I call it the solar Olympics!”

And of course, for that “ta-da” moment, there is the field trip to the Georgia Tech natatorium rooftop. Built during the 1996 Olympics, in collaboration with the DOE and Georgia Power, Rohatgi constructed what was then the world’s largest PV system. “The roof top is covered with a 340 kilo watt PV system,” he says. “It is like a laboratory, and the students say wow, this really works!”

Rohatgi and his wife, Rosine, who have two sons, Amit and Anil, recently moved to their new home in Marietta. “My older son is a doctor and my younger one is an engineer. We are empty-nesters,” he says with a smile. His wife, a chemical engineer, prefers to work from home, while he is in hot pursuit of his next target – creating the low-cost 20% efficiency, manufacturable solar cell.

Suniva, a Latin word, means “a gift of the sun.” Rohatgi is striving to ensure that people everywhere receive their fair share.

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