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Capture the Sun

Carl Wamser

After nearly three decades of researching solar energy, the clouds have parted for Carl Wamser, professor of Chemistry at Portland State University

Once relegated to the fringe, interest in solar energy is higher now in the U.S. than it's ever been, owing to a confluence of factors: rising global demand for energy, increased urgency to find non-polluting power sources, and security concerns about access to energy sources.

For those reasons, solar reflects the "Holy Grail" of renewable energy options. While the world consumes an average rate of 15 terawatts (TW) of energy, experts have identified 600 TW of readily accessible solar. Solar power is clean and carbon-free, a critical element to reducing current and future carbon emissions, which are a major contributor to global climate change.

Simply put, "Solar energy is going to save the world," says Wamser. "There's no doubt about it."

But beyond the evangelism lies a catch: How do you successfully (and affordably) convert sunshine into power for the human environment?


Wamser researches methods of artificial photosynthesis, imagining and improving the materials and processes used to absorb and convert sunlight into energy.

In August 2009 he received a three year, ~$500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further explore how certain materials can be used to fabricate and coat nanofibers, which could then be incorporated into the next generation of solar cells.

The goal is to create thin, flexible organic films that are as efficient as current technologies, but that would be cheaper and more adaptable to integrating into rooftop shingles, home siding—"anywhere the sun shines," says Wamser.

His research draws on the expertise of other PSU faculty, as well as graduate and undergraduate students and takes advantage of sophisticated equipment in PSU's Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication.

Carl Wamser's research extends beyond the fundamental. This spring, he began work on another NSF-funded project to examine possible synergies from integrating solar panels and eco-roofs (sidebar). Another "living laboratory" project is the long-planned rooftop Photovoltaic Test Facility, which will be installed on Science Building 2.


Wamser's enthusiasm for solar energy translates to the classroom, where each year he introduces hundreds of undergraduate students to organic chemistry. Over the past decades, he has worked with numerous high school science teachers, and regularly takes on a high school student in addition to those college-aged for summer research projects.

This commitment to teaching was acknowledged at the fall 2009 convocation ceremony, where Wamser was awarded PSU's George C. Hoffmann Award for Excellence in Teaching.

"As faculty members, we really do have the best jobs in the world. We have tremendous freedom to work on what we feel is most important, and we get to work with the next generation—we get to touch the future. It is fun and important."

Learn more >>
National Science Foundation grant
Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication


solar panel



In 2010 a group of Portland State University researchers installed solar panels over a series of small eco-roofs. The project, on a third-floor patio of PSU's Science Building 2, will explore how combining these green technologies can improve building performance, energy conservation and solar power production. The team includes Carl Wamser (Chemistry), David Sailor (Mechanical Engineering) and Todd Rosenstiel (Biology). Funding for the project comes from the National Science Foundation, Oregon BEST and others. Learn more >>





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