LightWorks Blog

Low-Carbon Fuels from Sunlight and Waste Carbon Dioxide: It is Possible, is it Practical?

published May 13, 2013, 3:53 pm

A Thought Leader Series Piece

By Ellen B. Stechel

Note: Ellen B. Stechel is the Deputy Director of ASU’s LightWorks and Managing Director of LightSpeed Solutions, communicating global efforts of leading scientists and researchers working towards sustainable transportation energy based on liquid hydrocarbon fuels from the sun.

A network of issues buried beneath the strategic and economic importance of petroleum and the increasing concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is complex; however, until addressed, no measure of global sustainability will be obtainable.

If we accept that, any solution to such issues yield lower net carbon emissions by 50-80 percent, then despite obvious advantages, alternative fossil fuel pathways cannot be the ultimate solution for transportation.

The economics of carbon

A stable policy environment to level the playing field and allow time for low-carbon options to develop, deploy, and decrease costs through experience, learning, scale, and innovation is necessary, but insufficient.

Higher carbon fuels from Canadian tar sands; coal or gas-to-liquids projects; and natural gas switching (with modest carbon reductions) rapidly entering the transportation sector may block market penetration of low-carbon innovations, discouraging investment in emerging technologies. Long-lived assets could “lock-in” a high-carbon transportation infrastructure and all but eliminate viable options for transitioning to a low-carbon future.

Innovation policy that enables a balanced portfolio of promising options would stimulate development of viable possibilities by focusing on solving the problem as opposed to choosing a limited set of specified approaches, thereby excluding opportunities for novel solutions, including hybrids, integrated systems, and new concepts.

Is liquid hydrocarbon fuel still a good option?

New low-carbon domestic energy sources and transportation innovation, such as increased fuel economy, biofuels, electrification, and possibly hydrogen, would reduce total demand for petroleum and carbon emissions, but not enough.

Could liquid hydrocarbon-based fuel remain a viable and sustainable option in large quantities? Often overlooked, liquid hydrocarbon fuels are unrivaled in the rate of delivery to on-board, usable energy storage. They are also unsurpassed in having high energy densities accommodating both space and weight requirements. Consequently, there are no credible alternatives for air, heavy-duty, or commercial ocean applications save some penetration of compressed or liquefied natural gas.

Furthermore, it is neither useful nor accurate to think of petroleum as a primary energy resource. It is more appropriate and instructive to recognize that conventional fossil fuels are in fact, “stored (ancient) sunlight” in the form of energy dense, sequestered carbon and hydrogen that nature took millions of years to produce and modern civilization is taking only centuries to consume. Carbon dioxide and water are simply the energy-depleted, oxidized form of the carbon and hydrogen making up the hydrocarbon. Thus, we might consider reframing the problem as a techno-economic challenge to reverse combustion fast enough to match consumption.

Recycling carbon dioxide

This reframing suggests searching for large-scale options that convert, store, and upgrade sunlight to a higher energy value and transportable form as nature did, but faster. An underexplored emerging strategy is to develop solar technologies that recycle—rather than bury—waste carbon dioxide into new supplies of liquid hydrocarbon fuels.

For example, synthetic solar thermochemical fuel processes can convert solar energy, excess carbon dioxide, and low quality water into gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel—fuels that are compatible with the existing energy infrastructure. This process recycles carbon dioxide back into fuel at rates considerably faster and more efficiently than the biosphere naturally captures and fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

To achieve societal objectives, such options will need to do so efficiently, affordably, and sustainably. Many challenges are avoided by utilizing existing infrastructure whenever possible and using waste carbon dioxide as a carbon source feedstock initially from concentrated sources, but ultimately directly or indirectly captured from the excess in the atmosphere.

Opportunities and challenges

Large-scale industrial conversion of solar energy that transforms carbon dioxide and water into infrastructure compatible hydrocarbon fuels is an attractive option to facilitate a smooth and continuous transition, affecting the existing vehicle fleet and co-evolving with the future fleet. However, such an option while certainly possible, still has significant resource, economic, and technical challenges before becoming practical, especially if it is going to achieve scale and be sustainable.

A general examination identifies a number of challenges, such as achieving high solar energy-to-fuel system-level efficiency, low material intensity in the solar collectors, high material accessibility, and good material durability; limited and no additional arable land use; and low water consumption. Opportunities to meet each of these challenges are already encouraging.

Using the sunlight to re-energize carbon dioxide both directly and in hybrids (with biomass or fossil feedstocks) can produce net lower and ultimately net neutral carbon-based fuels with most of the carbon in the initial feedstock making it into the fuel product. Researchers in several countries, including the U.S., working on solar-based recycling of carbon dioxide have prototypes and some making it to large-scale demonstrations.

Such innovations could unite solar energy interests with fossil fuel and biofuel interests, and could preserve an option for a low-carbon future and a smooth transition that maximizes the use of installed infrastructure and new investments in natural gas.

A promising energy future

These opportunities offer significant promise for a platform of technologies that store sunlight and sequester carbon above ground as an energy-dense fuel with affordable economics, closing the-carbon cycle, and scalable to global demand.

Despite challenges, there are promising advances already happening and opportunities to leverage developments in related industry segments. By working across stovepipes, we can drive sustainable economic growth, create many high-quality jobs, and produce viable and scalable solar alternatives to petroleum.

About the author: Ellen B. Stechel is trained in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Early in her career, she was a technical staff member at Sandia National Laboratories before moving to the Scientific Research Lab and later Product Development at Ford Motor Company. While at Ford, her responsibilities included emissions and fuel chemistries, climate change and sustainability, and deployment of new technologies for low emission vehicles. Later in her career, she returned to Sandia National Labs to build and manage research efforts in applied energy, making fuels from the sun and concentrating solar technologies. She is now a professor of practice at ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Originally published here in the Global Institute of Sustainability's "Thought Leader Series" on April 30, 2013.

The Human Future: Sir Crispin Tickell urges us to confront issues of our day

published May 9, 2013, 12:02 pm

How do humans work with growing population? Sir Crispin Tickell, advisory council member of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, explores this question in his lecture “The Human Future” which took place on April 11, 2013. This lecture, sponsored as part of the GIOS Wrigley Lecture Series, confronted the issues of adaptation to climate change, the economics of health and wealth, and most importantly, the way we think about sustainability in regards to the future of energy.

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Sir Crispin Tickell and LightWorks’ director Gary Dirks. Photo by Gabrielle Olson, LightWorks.

Sir Crispin explained that over time humans have grown ignorant to the consequences affecting our atmosphere, human health, food and energy sources, and overall environment as a result of human behavior. As population increases, it is inevitable that human activity will continue to have more of an impact on our future. Sir Crispin pointed out that the relationship between the rate of production and consumption correlates with the rate of climate change, shortage of food, new diseases, and unsustainable products.  “Consumption may not continue,” said Sir Crispin. “We need to reach accommodations and hopefully restore some balance.”

To be sustainable is to expect the unexpected. Simply encouraging people to use less will not work as efficiently as encouraging them to think differently and plan for the future. One major problem of getting this information across is the lack of communication between media and scientists. Sir Crispin explains the importance of people staying responsibly informed and engaged with planning for the future of our world. Sir Crispin believes that by 2113, humans will practice ethical situations that allow the natural world to have its place.

Sir Crispin Tickell’s perception of the human future includes:

  • Increased Communication and New Technologies—information will pass over the entire planet and transform the human relationship. Clean technologies will allow an easier way to adapt into a sustainable future.
  • Focused Communities—the current obsession with growth and overuse will be directed into specialized local fields. Production of local crops, redesigned cities, and access to greater public transportation will keep communities closer together.
  • Implementation of Clean Energy—clean energy will be decentralized and focused on benefitting the environment and human health.

Sir Crispin’s lecture can be connected to the way that we plan for our future energy sources. The quality of life for individuals and societies is affected by energy choices. Rethinking the way that we want to run our societies is the first step. By staying active in supporting local and state renewable energy policy and research development, the future of clean energy will be made more certain. Sir Crispin ended his lecture by asking the question, “How long will it take to renew our human impact?” The answer relies on us all.

Watch the full lecture recorded by The Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

Wrigley Lecture Series - Sir Crispin Tickell from Sustainability @ ASU on Vimeo.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks.

Additional information:

ASU Energy Club hosts Water-Energy Nexus Event on Desalination

published April 9, 2013, 1:55 pm

Pop quiz question—how much of the earth’s surface is covered in water? The answer is 70%. Although that is a big number, less than 1 percent of that water is actually suitable for human use and consumption. The majority of the water on Earth is full of salt or permanently frozen in glaciers. With large scale usage of clean water for farming, drinking, and washing, the concern of water scarcity and drought comes to mind. Researchers have turned to developing water desalination as a route to protect clean water for the future. If we are able to successfully tackle water-related challenges by desalination, then we could ultimately face the looming effects of climate change and clean water demands for the future.

On March 18, 2013 the ASU Energy Club hosted an event focused specifically on the development and energy impact of water desalination plants as part of their Water-Energy Nexus Workshop series.

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Guest speaker Dr. Jesus Gastelum from the Yuma Desalting Plant. Photo taken by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

The guest speaker for this event was Dr. Jesus Gastelum from the Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP), a water treatment facility. Gastelum first gave the ASU Energy Club an overview of the Colorado River Basin. The Colorado River Basin provides water to Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. Water from the Colorado River Basin is delivered to Arizona via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal which provides Arizona municipal, agricultural, and Indian communities with water. It is a 336-mile long system starting from Lake Havasu City all the way to San Xavier Indian Reservation in Tucson. The system is comprised of aqueducts, tunnels, pumping plants and pipelines that provide a steady source of water to the people of Arizona. The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) provides the electrical power needed to pump water into the CAP aqueduct. The relationship between NGS and CAP is an example of a water-energy nexus because together they determine how much energy it takes to keep a consistent flow of water in the canal.

Water will always remain in high demand for Arizona due to our desert acclimated environment. It certainly does not help that both climate change and population demand has contributed to the greater possibility for drought for the southwestern portion of the United States. The 2007 and 2010 summer drought serves as examples of times when water shortages have hit Arizona hard. The CAP states that the Colorado River will never completely dry up, but they do note the capability for drought. Although they have guidelines for drought preparations and “enough water stored behind dams to provide the needs for upper and lower basin states for three to five years”, projects like the YDP and other water desalination plants have been initiated to further prevention. The YDP was built in 1992 as a project to help the U.S. ration the water from the Colorado River by demonstrating desalination as the potential answer for the growing thirst of southwestern states.

YDP focuses on cleaning up inland brackish water, both surface and groundwater, and includes analyzing water samples from the Colorado River. YDP uses the process of pretreatment and reverse osmosis (RO) to clean water and make it suitable for human use. YDP is looking into treatment alternatives that could potentially limit the amount of chemicals used in water treatment. Gastelum said that YDP’s purpose is to “Ensure tomorrow’s water supply by pioneering new technologies”.

It takes an extreme amount of energy to run water plants. For example, YDP uses over 33,000 megawatts and CAP uses 2.8 million megawatts of power to operate their plant. ASU Energy Club members were interested in discussing the possibility of solar to operate water plants in the future. They gave the example of the city of Gila Bend which powers their RO water system with a 460 kilowatt photovoltaic solar-energy system. Although a great use of energy efficiency for Gila Bend, using solar to entirely power YDP and CAP could prove to be fairly difficult. What is difficult now, however, may not be in the near future. With further research and development in solar power, water desalination plants like YDP could be a source of sustainable and energy efficient water for our future.

The Worth of Water from ASU Research on Vimeo.

Researchers at ASU are working hard to confront challenges with water in our desert environment by studying the effects of climate change, available access to water, the possibilities of wastewater, and more. Check out ASU’s water research homepage here.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Additional Information:

ASU Workshop Discusses Social and Ethical Considerations of Solar Energy

published March 19, 2013, 2:33 pm

On February 22, 2013, ASU faculty and students attended an all-day workshop focusing on the larger social, economic, policy, and ethical considerations of solar energy. This event was sponsored by ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO), the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Engineering. The speakers and facilitators hosting this event included Clark Miller, the Associate Director of CSPO; Joseph Herkert, an Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology in the School of Letters and Sciences; and Chad Monfreda, a graduate research associate at CSPO.

The workshop hosted a morning and afternoon session with following group activities, networking, and plenty of room for open discussions. The two sessions provided the basis of the workshop’s key concepts and ideas which was to explain the importance of social and ethical considerations of solar in Arizona and across the United States. 

Photo retrieved from ASU Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes website:

Session I: Solar Energy and Socio-technical systems

Clark Miller was the speaker for the morning lecture which aimed at explaining the social implications of developing solar energy. Miller first began with explaining what a socio-technical system is. A socio-technical system is a system in which people and technological elements are woven together. Miller provided the example of the automobile, which allows people to travel easily from work to home. For many people, automobiles are relied upon as a daily function. Another example is air conditioning, which allows us to endure the often intolerable Arizona summer heat. Technology heavily influences and shapes the way we live our lives.

The energy that we use to produce technology is not only influential to our everyday human functions, but to our future as well. In regards to energy consumption, the socio-technical system relies on connecting the way we use energy to the human powers of existence. The way we see technology, people, and energy woven together is called a socio-energy system. Although there are more people on earth than ever before, Miller noted that the energy transition is “not a population transition, but rather a technological transition because there is an increasing density of electricity consumption”. It is becoming apparent that solar energy technology, such as photovoltaics, will be integrated into our socio-energy system to satisfy our future energy needs in a clean and sustainable way. Miller argues that it is therefore essential that we know how to organize, make money, and govern our socio-energy system so that we receive the best benefits.

It is not easy to determine how to organize, govern, and financially gain from implementing a new low-carbon energy system. The oil and gas companies are deeply embedded into our economies. Transitioning out of this system will entail big winners and big losers if poorly planned. Miller gave the example of people living on the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast does not naturally achieve the same amount of sun as we have in the Southwest. “We cannot forget about these people” said Miller. “We need to figure out how we are going to economically develop the Gulf Coast which will not get much solar development”. Miller also explained that although solar energy reaps great benefits for residential home owners, it would have a reverse effect on energy utility companies such as Arizona Public Service Company (APS) or Salt River Project (SRP). “Energy change will redistribute risks and benefits,” said Miller. “It will cost people jobs”. Miller explains that if we are going to transition out of the current socio-energy system then we need to develop new ways to do business and try to reap the best benefits for everyone. Miller notes that ASU is setting an example by training students to become aware of energy policy issues that will be useful later on when solar becomes more evident in a national energy plan.

Session II: Solar Energy and Ethical Considerations

Joseph Herkert was the speaker for the second session which aimed at explaining ethics and how we can correlate it to solar energy development. Herkert explained that ethical issues involve conflict of interests or values of different individuals or organizations. In regards to ethical considerations of energy, Herkert provided the example of global warming. Global warming is a concern of many scientists but still remains an issue of conflicted public interest. Herkert explains that it comes down to “what we know and what we ought to do”. We know that installing nuclear power plants can have disastrous effects on both an environmental scale and a human health related scale. Although nuclear disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl can potentially happen again, it is a risk that many countries take to sustain an energy economy. 

Herkert provided two philosophical viewpoints in regards to ethical considerations. The first is Utilitarianism Ethics, which states the greatest good for the greatest number. People who develop ethics on the Utilitarianism guidelines would focus on the consequence and see which options benefit the most people. Utilitarian Ethics in energy policy would create an energy policy that would benefit the greatest amount of people and their environment.” To counter that point, Herkert gave the example of Duty-Based Ethics which is based on duties or obligations regardless of the consequences. Herkert explains that Duty-Based Ethics is based on not treating people as merely a means to an end. In regards to energy ethics, this can be viewed as everyone having the right to energy services, not just a select few. These two points can often conflict with the other: How can we balance the best potential outcome (Utilitarianism) with the right of everyone having the same energy services (Duty-Based)?

Herkert explains that if we envision a sustainable world, “energy efficiency on its own is not going to do it, we need behavior changes”. With a code of energy ethics, we are able to have guidelines on how we want to see a renewable energy future. Herkert said that there has yet to be a solid code of ethics for solar energy, and if we were to develop a code of ethics, what would it look like?  Herkert provided a sample code of ethics which is listed here:

Herkert’s Sample Code of Solar Ethics:

  1. Solar energy development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights
  2. Solar energy should be environmentally sustainable
  3. Solar energy should not contribute to net reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions and not exacerbate global climate change
  4. Solar energy should develop in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognize the rights of people to a just reward
  5. Costs and benefits of solar energy should be distributed in an equitable way
  6. If the first five principles are respected, there is a duty to develop solar energy

This workshop initiated thought processes and conversation starters which encouraged students and faculty to look at the large-scale considerations of solar energy. By examining these two lectures, it is apparent that having conversations about the social and ethical implications of solar energy is important for people not only interested in getting into renewable energy development and policy, but for the greater masses affected by the institution of these policies. With having more workshops like this at Arizona State University, we can further develop how we wish to see the future of solar in Arizona and across the United States.  

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Additional Information:

ASU Energy Social Sciences Initiative:

Connect with CSPO on Twitter:

ASU and the AZ Science Center Spotlight the Future of Energy

published February 26, 2013, 11:59 am

On January 24, 2013, ASU students, faculty, researchers, and members from across the Phoenix metropolitan area attended a public event titled “The Future of Energy: Brown, Clean, or In Between?”. The event included booth displays by the Arizona Energy Consortium and the university community, a compelling panel discussion, and a dinner reception. The event was hosted by the partnership of Arizona State University and the Arizona Science Center.

From left to right: ASU President Michael Crow, Moderator Eve Troeh, Mark Jacobson, Peter Byck, and John Hofmeister. Photo taken by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks.

After welcoming remarks from Chevy Humphrey, President and CEO of the Arizona Science Center, ASU President Michael Crow introduced the panel discussion by providing important insight about the future of energy:

“If you plan to be here for the indefinite future, we must find a way to produce a different kind of person, a different set of ideas, and a different set of ‘stuff’ to think about our energy future in a different way.”

In order to produce the successful solutions we wish to see, we must toss political positions aside and come together to generate ideas that will benefit future generations. Deciding the route for our future energy policy is not easy--Should we go full scale renewable energy? Stick to fossil fuels? Invest in a mixture of both? Regardless of how one wishes to answer those questions, it is time for the critical discussions to be made. This was the goal and purpose of the Future of Energy panel discussion, hosting the opinions of three very different panelists.

The Panelists:

Mark Jacobson
Director, Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University

Mark Jacobson believes that the first step for our transition is to start today. The energy future he envisions is a full conversion to clean energy by the year 2050. He breaks down the divisions noting the transition should ultimately be 50% wind and 50% solar. When asked if natural gas, an in-between option, would be an acceptable energy plan, Jacobson said, “Natural gas still puts out CO2. Why would we start there?” In terms of the future of energy, Mark Jacobson believes in an energy system that will reduce our carbon footprint.

Peter Byck
Director and Producer, Carbon Nation

Peter Byck believes that the future of energy will need to initiate a coming together of communities. Byck said, “I want to go to a low carbon community as quickly as possible”. Byck noted that corporations and communities have a more similar role in succeeding in that goal than most people might think. Byck’s view is that we are not polarized as a country in terms of the energy issue and that if we are able to see past that then we are able to really get some great things done in implementing clean energy.  

John Hofmeister
 Founder, Citizens for Affordable Energy. Former President, Shell Oil Co.

John Hofmeister looks at energy as an operator. Unlike Peter Byck and Mark Jacobson, Hofmeister sees the shortcomings of renewable energy. He noted that there are two shortcomings, “a fundamental lack of information and a lack of someone in charge”. Hofmeister believes that transitioning into full use of renewable energy would be more difficult to pull off right away without regulation or natural gas. Hofmeister said, “We need time and time is the solution for many of these problems”. Although Hofmeister believes there are shortcomings to renewable energy, he does believe that we should be talking about it.

Here is the full video coverage brought to you by ASU Global Institute of Sustainability:

Future of Energy: Brown, Clean, or In Between? from Sustainability @ ASU on Vimeo.

Although all the panelists had different views about how to define our future of energy, the general consensus was that Arizona, as well as the rest of the nation, must make a conscious effort to incorporate renewable energy initiatives into the discussion. Whether it is for energy security, a cleaner and more sustainable world, or for coming together as a community, the research and development of renewable energy technology will need to be seen as an option for our future of energy.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Additional Information:

Spotlight on ASU Research at ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit

published February 5, 2013, 1:13 pm

The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is hosting its fourth annual Energy Innovation Summit in Washington D.C. on February 25-27, 2013. The event is designed to collect esteemed individuals involved in the energy community- researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, corporate executives, and government officials- to engage in sharing ideas to develop and deploy next generation energy technologies. The summit is a unique opportunity to discuss innovative energy solutions that will fit the world’s future needs.

“This unique forum will help facilitate the partnerships necessary to bring game-changing technologies to market quickly, which is critical to securing America’s global technology leadership and creating new jobs.”Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy.

The summit is separated into three days which will consist of technology discussions with ARPA-E program directors, multiple panel sessions, and networking programs. Check out the full agenda here. Each year, the summit also hosts the Technology Showcase which features cutting-edge technology developments. The showcase enables participants to converge with research organizations and companies that are positioned to transform our energy future.

Arizona State University is one of the proud research organizations participating in the Technology Showcase at the 2013 ARPA-E Innovation summit. This year ASU will be showcasing LightWorks, which will be representing all supported initiatives, as well as projects specifically focusing on cyanobacteria, carbon capture, and Fluidic Energy, an ASU spin-out company working in battery storage. Preparation for this event was supported by ASU's Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Booths in the Technology Showcase:

Carbon Capture:

Carbon capture is an energy efficient and cost effective process that captures carbon dioxide from prominent emission sources, such as a coal-burning power plant. ASU is advancing the method of carbon dioxide capture by using electrochemical reactions used to capture and release carbon dioxide. This process has the possibility of reducing energy and cost requirements significantly as well as enabling a solution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This research was recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.


Through revolutionary technology, cyanobacteria are used as photosynthetic biocatalysts to convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into feedstock for biofuels. This process enables cyanobacteria to secrete fatty acids which produce a larger biomass. The biofuel produced then can be used as jet fuel, gasoline, green diesel fuel, and even bioplastics. Four years ago, ASU was awarded a $5.2 million dollar grant from the DOE to develop this research for two years

ARPA-E Grant Recipient - Cyanobacteria for Solar-Powered Biofuels from ASU Research on Vimeo.

Booths in the Partner Pavilion:

Battery Storage:

Fluidic Energy, an Arizona State University spin-out company, will be showcasing their innovative technology focusing on battery storage. The company aims to develop high energy density batteries with ultra-long run times at a lower energy cost. Fluidic Energy targets on advancing the most effective, safe, and sustainable battery technology.

High-energy batteries address the issue of battery energy and energy storage needed for low-cost and long-range power for hybrid and electric vehicles. This research aims to develop an electric vehicle battery which would allow a distance range better or comparable to a gas-powered vehicle. Through the development of energy storage technologies, the hope is to reduce the need for imported oil to power our vehicles. Battery storage technology won a $5.1 million grant from the DOE to continue development of this research over a two year period in 2009.


The LightWorks initiative of Arizona State University will be showcasing a variety of energy-related technologies focusing in the area of renewable energy and liquid transportation fuels. LightWorks’ multidisciplinary effort aims to leverage ASU’s unique strengths, particularly in development of artificial photosynthesis, biofuels, and next generation photovoltaic. Recently, ASU won a $15 million grant from the DOE to lead the first-ever national algae testbed. The testbed, Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3), is led by LightWorks’ director Gary Dirks.

AZ = Algae (AzCATI) from ASU Research on Vimeo.

Through our leading-edge research, Arizona State University has many things to discuss at the Technology Showcase at the ARPA-E Innovation summit this year. The summit is a great opportunity for ASU to connect and engage in developing next generation energy technologies with researchers from all around the United States. If you would like to learn more about the summit visit for more details.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Understanding, Engaging, and Creating an Energy Narrative

published December 20, 2012, 10:37 am

Throughout the month of November, a number of ASU groups joined forces to talk about narrative and its place in the energy discussion. Among these groups were ASU LightWorks, Project Humanities, Institute for Humanities Research (IHR) and Energy, Ethics, Society, and Policy (EESP). LightWorks Director, Gary Dirks, has long expressed a need for the development of an energy narrative, but part of that comes with first understanding what a narrative is, how it operates, and what it looks like.

EESP group discusses energy and narrative. Photo by: Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks.

Discussions began with an exploration of narrative purpose. Narratives are complex webs of multiplicities that are based on filters of one’s own perspective, cultural-historical situation, gender, education, and general experience in and with the world. But narratives also connect us as human beings because many stories are culturally cross-cutting, at times even transcending limitations of space and time. This is, for instance, why Shakespeare continues to be read, studied, performed, and adapted. It should also be noted that what makes an effective narrative has little to do with validity of the content, because the truth is present in the experience. A great example of this can be seen by examining propaganda.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The anti-Japanese WWII propaganda poster above reveals a national narrative about patriotic duty and uses racial stereotypes (both physically and linguistically) to reinforce culturally perceived oppositions of the time, but this doesn’t make it true. What matters here is that regardless of fact, it prompts people to care in some way, whether positively or negatively, about what’s being said. (It is also interesting to note the company logo in the lower right hand side of the poster, which speaks volumes to the way energy is and has been intertwined with politics, society, and culture.)

Gary Dirks gave Greenpeace’s “I Vote 4 Energy” parody video as an example in the energy space because it “deconstructs the underlying narrative of the [original] advertising campaign.”

I Vote 4 Energy Video


The parody only works when we understand the underlying narrative put forth by the American Petroleum Institute. Part of what these collaborative talks are aiming to do is get people to understand narrative so that we can begin to construct our own. Even here when I use the terms “we” and “our” I construct narrative because the language intimates a group for which this narrative should matter.

Neal Lester, Director of Project Humanities, said “The way a story is organized is a narrative in its own.” Ultimately, people can look at the same set of facts or data and draw different conclusions, thereby producing different narratives from the same source material. “Narratives can offer possibilities,” Lester said. “But not necessarily change the world.” People have to care about a particular narrative in order to make it meaningful.

Dan Gilfillan, Director of IHR, suggested that good narratives are ones that are believable. He looked at Aristotle’s philosophies on mimesis and stated, “We can think of the World Wide Web as sort of blowing open the box on notions of representation, but it’s still the same thing as the way early television or early radio worked. When we call the web ‘new media’ it’s really not all that new.” Gilfillan argued that placing ourselves in these mimetic representations helps us to orient ourselves and our experiences in the world. We order the world through our stories and experiences; they just take different shapes with new technologies.

Ultimately, as many speakers noted, narratives are heavily intertwined with language, culture, community, and identity, which all come with their own set of nuances.

Clark Miller, Director of the EESP program, said that we have created an unsustainable way of living and that we need a narrative that speaks to this. Miller notes that we need to find ways to say things like, “You can’t drive a hummer anymore,” the underlying point being that it is socially irresponsible. We have to find ways to build new narratives in order to make fundamental changes.

A common confusion that presented itself at the talks was the notion that narrative is somehow synonymous with facts and/or truths. Content can be true or false, but narrative is simply the tool used in content delivery. Narrative is a piece of literary architecture—the same way a book is simply the material holding cell for a variety of content. Stories are constructed. Whether or not they are true is what readers, listeners, and viewers must be able to determine for themselves from experiencing the narrative.

One participant argued that “Clean Coal” is an oxymoron and simply not true, so this somehow makes the narrative not credible and not worthy of acknowledgment. This is where it becomes imperative to understand the way narrative works. It doesn’t matter if “Clean Coal” is factually untrue. If the group constructing the “Clean Coal” narrative convinces enough people to care about their story, their narrative survives in the cultural space. The opposition must create a counter narrative that convinces more people than “Clean Coal.”

There are a plethora of narratives in the energy space. “Clean Coal” and “Energy Independence” are just two that come to mind. Each of these narratives speak to specific values and ideas that have been appropriated into their respective stories. However, these narratives can change. They change when other groups join the discussion and contribute to the narrative, when the socio-cultural environment shifts, and when the majority demands it.

Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson and Gary Dirks discuss energy narratives and how to begin thinking about the future and the implications of our energy choices.

LightWorks also supports a new Social Sciences Initiative at ASU that seeks to bring together the Humanities and Social Sciences in the Energy System Change. Learn more about this exciting new initiative here.

Written by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks

Additional information:

Transitioning into a Sustainable Energy Future: A Lecture by Distinguished Scholar, Dr. Arun Majumdar

published December 19, 2012, 10:55 am

On October 19 Dr. Arun Majumdar presented a lecture titled “A New Industrial Revolution for a Sustainable Energy Future” as part of the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Distinguished Scholar Lecture series. Many students, staff, professors, and researches in the field gathered to listen to Dr. Majumdar’s lecture. The lecture focused on how the United States’ Industrial Revolution had historically impacted energy technologies and how the theory of transitioning to efficient solutions can be applicable to how we will use and shape our current energy resources. Through his research, Dr. Majumdar has led a phenomenal career in paving a path to the future of sustainable energy technologies.

2010 Southwest Energy Innovation Conference
Photo of Dr. Arun Majumdar speaking at the 2010 South West Energy Innovation Conference. Photo by Tom Story, ASU News.

The Industrial Revolution was a period when improvements in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology sparked an era of social, economic, and cultural growth. The transformation of lifestyle made during the Industrial Revolution is arguably the most important human transition since the domestication of plants and animals.  Dr. Majumdar noted the Industrial Revolution in his lecture as being “From horse power to horsepower”. The main mode of transportation in the 1800s was the use of horses and carriage. Due to innovation and support for transportation production, the transition from the horse to the automobile took place between the 1890s to the 1920s. In the span of only 30 years, the use of technology and innovation had influenced a change that has affected the way we see transportation forever. People transitioned to a better solution that provided a more efficient approach to production. Dr. Majumdar asked the audience:

“What are the better, cheaper, faster solutions that we have today?”

Although traditional energy resources like petroleum and coal were important to innovation during the Industrial Revolution, times have changed, and the shift from nonrenewable resources to renewable resources is taking place. Dr. Majumdar explained that the transition from the horse to the vehicle is much like the transition that needs to be made from nonrenewable resources to renewable resources. The energy system that the United States’ has supported for more than 200 years is creating an economic dilemma as well as presenting an even more apparent environmental impact on our earth. The need for better, cheaper, and faster renewable energy options is greater than it has ever been.

Some of the goals that Dr. Majumdar discussed to forecast the future of sustainable energy are achieved through higher efficiency rates. In regards to solar energy, Dr. Majumdar highlighted the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. The SunShot Initiative’s plan is to reduce solar energy to a dollar per watt by 2020, which would ultimately make solar energy a cheaper alternative to traditional gas. Also noted was the Department of Energy’s goal on developing a more efficient and lighter engine for vehicles which consumes less fuel but still can go from 0 to 60mph in under five seconds. Dr. Majumdar explained that the transition to sustainable energy innovation and policy will improve the rate in which we utilize our transportation future.

Research and development for breakthrough clean technologies can enable new learning curves. In short, a learning curve is the rate at which productivity and efficiency affects an economy’s learning process. The learning curve is represented in a graphical representation that breaks down the overall changing rate of learning retention from the average individual. Through the innovation of energy researchers and the funding of projects dedicated to clean energy alternatives, the learning curve of Americans can increase to a broader approval of a sustainable energy future. “It is always hard to predict the future,” said Majumdar. “But the hope is to have multiple options”. 

This lecture gives us the opportunity to discuss the pressing issue of transitioning from nonrenewable resources to renewable energy resources. The transition into the New Industrial Revolution will define the ways in which we utilize research and development to work toward benefiting our future economic, social, and cultural growth. Dr. Majumdar closed in saying,

“The capacity for the United States to innovate is absolutely spectacular. What we need is increased funding for sustainable policy and clean energy standards... If we don’t change the direction soon, we will end up where we are inevitably heading!”

Written by Gabrielle Olsen, ASU LightWorks

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LightWorks Inaugural Lecture Series: Assessing the Electric Vehicle and the Direction toward Transportation Sustainability

published December 11, 2012, 9:32 am

On Monday, November 19, 2012, LightWorks kicked off its Inaugural Lecture Series with Ford Motor Company’s Executive Technical Leader of Energy Systems and Sustainability, Dr. Michael A. Tamor. The event operated as a three-pronged unit with a seminar, workshop, and lecture spanning over the course of the day.

Dr. Michael A. Tamor presenting his final lecture. Photo by Sydney Lines of ASU LightWorks.

Dr. Tamor began the session with a seminar titled, “Global Vehicle Usage Studies: Who Can Really Use an Electric Car?” He gave an overview of the attractive qualities of the electric vehicle (EV) including its silence, efficiency, and zero-emissions. However, these attractive qualities come with a more limited use range and longer “refueling” time than traditional vehicles. Dr. Tamor ran through a series of tables and graphs of a variety of cities worldwide that indicated very similar patterns in terms of the way we use transportation. He noted that we can conclude with relative certainty that the limited range of EVs will likely prove too inconvenient for wide adoption, and for those who are willing to use EVs despite this inconvenience, batteries must be unrealistically priced for the economic return. In light of the universality of vehicle usage, this becomes a powerful indicator for how transportation will evolve in the developing world. Dr. Tamor noted that perhaps the vehicle most likely to achieve widespread use is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), which operates by both battery and traditional fuel and thus provides compromise for EV limitations. Although the PHEV may have advantages in travel range and electrification potential, it depends on the driving patterns of the individual to decide whether or not a PHEV is right for them. Dr. Tamor provided a list of questions that can estimate whether an individual will choose between purchasing an EV or a PHEV by simply identifying the amount of distance traveled.

  • How many miles do you drive annually?
  • Roughly how many days per year do you use your vehicle?
  • How many days do you commute?

Between the PHEV and the EV, an electric vehicle may be the most desirable option for an individual living within close proximity to where they most often commute. Also, a PHEV can never pay for itself the same way an EV can because of its use of 100% electricity. An individual might be able to simply plug their EV into their home solar panels and ultimately save more money than they would with a PHEV. Although a more clean and efficient option, the answers from individuals surveyed show that the majority of people simply travel too far to actually benefit from an EV. “The trouble is you have to ask what a vehicle can do for you,” Tamor said. “Sometimes buying an electric vehicle is not going to be necessarily cheaper.”

Following the seminar, participants gathered in a workshop titled, “Envisioning a Sustainable Transportation Future in 2050.” Groups were paired off to discuss trajectory end points. Odd tables were asked to describe a pivotal event, experience, or conversation in 2012 that crystallized the nature of the sustainable transportation challenge and to consider that moment in terms of how it reflects current transportation leadership, choices, and trajectories. Even tables were asked to describe the main ways they imagined 2050 would look versus 2012, specifically in terms of transportation leadership, choices, and trajectories made over that period. Groups reported their findings, and solutions were collected for use in further studies.

The reported findings and solutions made by the workshop groups generated similar results. Odd tables agreed that green policy initiatives and the wide acceptance of renewable energies has been an important step forward on the nature of current sustainable transportation leadership. The converging of electrical and transportation networks, use of dynamic charging and upgrade of electrical infrastructure has been a pivotal point in 2012 to solidify the United States as being sustainably conscious of transportation. Even tables argued that our world in 2050 would be possibly more EV friendly due to the impact of climate change and urban sprawl becoming less evident. A city 38 years from now may incorporate a design that allows people to be in closer vicinity and incorporates more public transportation options. Workshop participants agreed that in order to reach broader sustainable transportation leadership there would need to be a national cultural and social shift. Along with vast public support, current and future leadership must lead the United States’ transportation sector into a sustainable system that relies on renewable energy funding and policy initiatives such as a Carbon Tax, Open Fuels Standard Act, and implemented fuel standards. As a reflection on the future of Arizona, workshop participants agreed that the transition to solar and algae biofuels would be the likely source of energy in the South West due to abundant sunlight.

The final lecture, “Sustainable Personal Transportation: The Re-electrification of the Automobile,” concluded the series with the question of whether or not personal automobiles have a place in a sustainable transportation future. Dr. Tamor noted that the public often willfully accepts as fact that automobiles are less efficient than other modes of transportation, and that EVs will reduce green house gas emissions and contribute to the acceleration of clean electric generation. Dr. Tamor challenged these conceptions by discussing the limitations of battery storage and introducing a number of non-traditional fuels to continue to study for vehicular use. Among these, he highlighted hydrogen fuels and natural gas, which he noted has become greatly available due to new fracking technologies—though he was sure to note that depending on whether or not this remained what he called a “sustainable” fuel rested on its environmental impact.

The Inaugural Lecture Series seeks to engage with experts in a wide variety of energy-related fields. The event contributed to the discussion LightWorks hopes to continue on our energy future, a large part of which is affected by our transportation choices.

Written by Sydney Lines and Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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Complex Systems Theory: The Role of Invention, Sustainability, and Innovation in Societies

published December 6, 2012, 11:06 am

On November 15 the Dean of the School of Sustainability, Sander van der Leeuw, spoke at the Tempe Center for the Arts about complex systems theory on the role of sustainability and innovation in societies as part of the distinguished Wrigley Lecture Series. The lecture focused on the evolution of human minds and how people have historically worked together to improve societies through the role of invention and innovation. 

Sander van der Leeuw is one of the 2012 United Nations Champions of the Earth. Photo by Anick Coudart of ASU News.

Through Complex systems theory, van der Leeuw suggests that the study of evolution within societies cannot be separated from the study of environmental change. Sander van der Leeuw focused on three specific phases of human innovation: the subject of matter, energy, and information.

  • Energy and matter cannot be shared but are necessary for survival.
  • Information can be shared and shaped to evolve new ideas.
  • Problem solving increases information processing capacity.

In other words, humans cannot share energy and matter but are able to harness it by transforming the organization of their environment. By transforming the environment, there is a need to innovate new ideas to adapt into a new environment thus broadening humans’ availability to information by sharing and evolving new ideas together. Problem solving increases collective cognitive development and allows a society to move from one direction into a new one that makes up the environment fit for their current way of life. This new way of life is a different, more complex system made in order to keep up with an environmentally changing world. An example of the transfer into a more complex system would be the transition of people moving from hunter-gather lifestyle to a point where people settle into a specific area. People choosing to settle in one spot needed to develop different tools to survive. They accelerated their inventiveness and made tools alternative to ones that they had already made. The invention of agriculture and harvesting tools made it easier for people to control their food in a consistently changing environment.

Currently, humans are in a geologic period that some geologists and sociology scientists call the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is an epoch that marks the extent and evidence that human activities have had a considerable global impact on the Earth's ecosystems. The purpose of Sander van der Leeuw’s lecture is to think about the types of innovation that will need to happen in order to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. Although humans can never predict what is going to happen in the future, with the use of sustainability we can practice planning and design to prepare for change.

Preparing for change is, in other words, forecasting into the future. As sustainability-conscious people, we must be able to boldly ask questions such as: What sort of future would we like to see in the year 2050? What are our current energy needs and how are they going to change? What are scientific projections of climate change and how can we build systems that start making a positive impact on the environment? Simply being aware and asking these questions can help society tremendously and benefit the continuation of research and development within  sustainable science fields.

“In the core of societies we need to be more innovative,” said van der Leeuw. “Innovation drives organization.”

The collaboration of people organizing to communicate energy problems is a great opportunity taking place here at Arizona State University. Continuing workshop efforts like the recent LightWorks Inaugural Lecture Series “Envisioning Sustainable Transportation Trajectory- System 2012-2050” workshop and the upcoming Energy Club workshop on the Water-Energy Nexus will greatly help in planning for future needs on a regional to international level. Societies will depend on these innovative thinking groups to envision and plan for a new environment that benefits us all.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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