LightWorks Blog

ASU-led algae cooperation to host algae workshop

published July 15, 2013, 1:20 pm

The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), housed at the Arizona State Unviersity Polytechnic campus, will help to host the second of ongoing, cutting-edge algae training workshops in August on the University of Texas at Austin’s campus.

Photo by: Arizona State University Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Following a successful inaugural training workshop on the ASU Polytechnic campus in Mesa, the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) will once again open its doors to the algae community for a hands-on, interactive algae workshop. From Aug. 19-23, participants will have a chance to get their hands green as they study Algal Culture Management and Strain Selection.

ATP3 is a network of open testbeds and evaluation facilities which aim to facilitate innovation, empower knowledge creation and accelerate growth of the emergent algal energy industry. In May, ATP3 specialists hosted a full class of algae researchers and scientists from around the globe for the first of many workshops. See what the participants are saying about the workshops in a video here.

“We are excited to spread the wealth of knowledge that ATP3 has as a collaboration,” said Gary Dirks, director of ATP3, ASU LightWorks and the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability.

Workshop modules will include:

• the collection of field samples (bioprospecting)
• measuring culture density and growth rates
• monitoring cultures for contaminants
• analyzing chemical composition of algal biomass

This workshop is designed for participants interested in the practical applications of algae, as well as advanced students and trainees who would like to obtain a comprehensive overview on the laboratory cultivation and analysis of microalgae. 

The training workshops are informal and participants will be encouraged to ask questions, share information with the group and network. Participants will be provided printed and electronic materials, and a certificate of completion at the conclusion of the workshop.

To sign up, visit The program fee is $1,600 and includes training, materials and three lunches.

ATP3 serves as a learning environment for the next generation of scientists, engineers and business leaders to help accelerate the research and development of algae-based technologies. Its open test bed and evaluation facilities are a hub for research and commercialization of algae-based biofuels and other biomass co-products.

ATP3 is funded through a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The partnership is led by the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation, which is embedded within the Arizona State University College of Technology and Innovation at the ASU Polytechnic campus with support from industry, academic and national laboratory partners.

To learn more, visit

Sarah Mason,
ASU LightWorks
*Originally posted on ASU News.

Liquid fuel from sunlight: A spotlight on cyanobacteria

published June 28, 2013, 11:57 am

Research and development of cleaner sources of energy is becoming increasingly more important in our society. Last week, President Barack Obama announced new measures to tackle climate change which included the need for new energy sources to reduce the nation’s increasing carbon footprint. The potential of cyanobacteria as a producer of biofuel is currently being supported as a cleaner fuel source with promising benefits. Researchers at Arizona State University are looking at how this very versatile and ancient organism can help build a sustainable energy future.

Beakers of cyanobacteria grow in ASU Bioenergy Professor Wim Vermaas’s lab. Photo retrieved by ASU News.

On May 24, 2013, Dr. Dan Robertson, Senior Vice President and Lead Scientist at Joule Fuels, visited Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute to speak about Joule’s cyanobacteria research and development. Joule Fuels was established in 2007 with the goal of creating renewable transportation fuel with only the use of sunlight, waste carbon dioxide, and non-potable water. The goal was to be able to convert solar energy and waste CO2 directly to fuels without depleting agriculture land or fresh water. Joule Fuels chose cyanobacteria as their production system because this ancient organism can efficiently accomplish all of their previously stated goals. Harnessing the power of the sun and concentrating CO2 comes easily for photosynthetic organisms like cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria act as a biocatalyst, i.e., mini factory, which can use solar energy and carbon dioxide to produce and secrete fatty acids for the direct production of biofuel without major production of biomass. “Cyanobacteria as a photosynthetic biocatalyst is more efficient than algae in regards to photon capture and conversion efficiency” Dr. Robertson said. This could mean that the development of biofuels in the future could  greatly rely on these mini-biofactories.

Joule Plant Overview. Video by Joule Fuels.

ASU Bioenergy Professor Wim Vermaas and his team have also made great strides in researching and developing cyanobacteria for biofuel production. In 2009, The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded a grant to Vermaas’s team to continue their research with cyanobacteria by funding their project until 2013. The main objective for Vermaas’s team is to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and limit harmful emissions to our environment with cyanobacteria as a method for transportation fuel. Vermaas’s team has also noted the sustainable benefits that cyanobacteria have over other photosynthetic biofuel platforms. In an interview with the team in the Summer 2011 edition of School of Life Sciences Magazine (SOLS) they stated that “Most photosynthetic biofuel platforms, such as algal systems or terrestrial plants for ethanol, require processing of the whole organism to extract the fuel, an expensive and time-consuming process”. Vermaas’s research combines both efficient solar-powered, CO2 consuming productions with little or no biomass, alongside technologies that efficiently transform fatty acids into economical and environmentally responsible transportation biofuels. This important research paves the path for the future of energy, which must be conscious of effects on our global environment.

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

Arizona State University’s LightWorks initiative aims to highlight renewable energy research that harnesses power from the sun. ASU research in cyanobacteria is a great example of an energy source that could benefit the goal of reducing our carbon footprint while providing a viable alternative transportation fuel for our future. To find out more about this exciting ASU research click here.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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EEB Hub: Hank Foley explains the benefits of energy efficient buildings

published June 19, 2013, 10:18 am

On May 1, 2013, Hank Foley, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, visited the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability to discuss the successes of the Department of Energy's Efficient Energy Building (EEB) Hub and the potential of a mini-EEB Hub at Arizona State University.

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Photo of Hank Foley. Photo retrieved from the Penn State News website.

The EEB Hub was established on February 1, 2011 by the Department of Energy (DOE) as an Energy-Regional Innovation Cluster (E-RIC) and is located at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. With its collaboration of major research universities, industrial firms, and national labs, the EEB Hub aims to develop the means to reduce energy use in commercial buildings by 20 percent by the year 2020. “The goal is hard to achieve,” Foley said. “This forces us to think of things in new ways”. The EEB Hub team has made significant strides by reaching architects, engineers, real estate developers, and building contractors to contribute to redesign and demonstrate scalable market proven solutions to reduce energy use in commercial buildings. To name only a few accomplishments, in the first year alone the EEB Hub has developed cloud infrastructure and a web-based information portal for high resolution building energy data, launched the School District of Philadelphia Sustainability Workshop providing project-based learning for 30 high school seniors, and established partnerships with regional and national allies, including the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Check out the EEB Hub’s quarterly highlight reports here.

Diagram showing EEB Hub in action | Image courtesy of KieranTimberlake. Photo retrieved from the Hidden City Philadelphia Blog.

According to the blog Hidden City Philadelphia, “Philadelphians spend 29 percent more on energy costs in commercial buildings than Americans do on average and energy spending is only higher in New York City, Washington, DC, and Boston.” The EEB Hub wants to change that statistic by spurring the development of more energy efficient buildings in the city. Foley said that the only way to accomplish this goal is to “inform people, validate information, and present proven technologies”. With population increasing and businesses growing in Phoenix, energy efficiency is also a very important issue for Phoenicians when planning the development of new buildings and homes. Arizona State University has worked diligently toward developing energy efficient technologies and buildings around all campuses to conserve energy and to strengthen public awareness to the benefits of EEBs. Implementing guidelines on room temperature (cooled no lower than 80° F), constructing LEED buildings, implementing the ASU Sustainable Design Policy, and the Campus Solarization program have all contributed to the future of buildings at ASU. One technology in particular that strengthens public awareness is ASU’s Campus Metabolism located online and on Tempe campus at Wrigley Hall. The Campus Metabolism is “an interactive web tool that enables the user to view the current resource use on campus”. The web tool is easy to use and allows the user to view the energy use of an individual building, building type, or the entire Tempe campus at different time scales. The Campus Metabolism displays the amount of campus energy consumption year-round and the user can also see the improvements energy efficient buildings have contributed to ASU’s overall energy use.

With these impressive steps toward increasing energy efficient buildings, Hank Foley believes that ASU has the potential to initiate a mini-EEB Hub. If this were to indeed take off, ASU would already be at a head start by having the information, validation, and presentation needed to set an example of how cities should plan and develop future buildings.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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Solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse visits Phoenix and ASU

published June 5, 2013, 1:16 pm

Solar Impulse, the innovative Swiss solar-powered airplane, arrived in Phoenix on May 4, 2013 marking a succesful first leg of their 2013 Across America mission. The Solar Impulse team participated in a variety of events including the Phoenix Event Week, Arizona State University's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Spring 2013 graduation ceremony, and a meeting with Gary Dirks, director of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and ASU LightWorks, to learn about ASU’s impressive research and development of solar energy. The Solar Impulse airplane took flight from Phoenix on May 22, 2013.

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Photo of the Solar Impulse flying over Phoenix, Arizona. Photo retrieved from Solar Impulse’s online video “Across America 2013: Landing in Phoenix

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the pilots and founders of the Solar Impulse, plan to fly across the USA from coast-to-coast solely through the use of solar power in their “Across America” challenge. Piccard and Borschberg marked the first leg of their trip as they landed in Phoenix on May 4, 2013. During their time in Phoenix, the Solar Impulse team hosted a Phoenix Event Week that highlighted both the innovative solar airplane and Arizona’s significant strides in solar energy and clean tech development. During the event, Bertrand named Arizona Governor Jan Brewer “Solar Queen” because of the significant investments in solar power that have been made in Arizona. The Solar Impulse Phoenix Event Week proved successful with the support of 2,200 people that came to the Phoenix Sky Harbor International airport to see the solar airplane.

Piccard and Borschberg also addressed the 2013 spring graduates of the ASU Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The pilots spoke about their project and the Solar Impulse team, which is made up of 90 engineers, technicians, technical advisers, organizers, and communications and media managers. Piccard noted the significance of speaking to ASU engineering graduates as a meaningful part of their trip to Phoenix. Both pilots pointed out the importance of engineers having a diverse set of skills and collaborative techniques, skills that ASU engineering students  have learned from the university’s interdisciplinary approach to education and research.

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Pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg meeting with Jan Brewer, Governor of the State of Arizona. Photo retrieved from Solar Impulse’s online album “Across America 2013: Phoenix Event Week

The Solar Impulse has broken barriers from being the first airplane that can fly day and night without the use of fuel. The Solar Impulse left Phoenix heading to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and their landing took place on Thursday, May 23rd. In their trip out of Phoenix, Solar Impulse was followed by a helicopter crew that captured the event on film. Watch the video of the Solar Impulse takeoff from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport here.

Solar Impulse states that “the development of efficient and renewable energies is as important for the security and prosperity of our society as for the protection of the environment and our natural resources”. The steps that Piccard and Borschberg have taken speak highly to the advancements in solar technology and have helped changed the way we see the future of energy. Arizona State University is also an excellent example of taking the lead to incorporate solar as a present and future energy source, and we commend the Solar Impulse team for their vision and initiative.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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ASU student creates algae-inspired art

published June 5, 2013, 11:55 am

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ASU student Phillip Carrier takes inspiration from algae during his summer as the artist in residence at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. Photo by: Jessica Cheng

Making what’s commonly referred to as “green slime” artistic may seem like a herculean feat, but Arizona State University student Phillip Carrier is using tiny algae plants as inspiration for an art installation project as a Master of Fine Arts student from the Herberger Institute School of Art.

Carrier will blend art and science together throughout two summer semesters on the ASU Polytechnic campus as the inaugural artist in residence at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI).

“I am thrilled to have this opportunity to work on a project that fuses the fields of art and technology, especially with the research community at AzCATI,” Carrier said. “Their in-depth research in algae will be an essential catalyst for my artwork and I'm excited to dive in to this project.”

AzCATI, which is embedded within the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU and part of the ASU LightWorks initiative, will provide tools, some financial support and space for Carrier to work throughout the summer. Once complete, Carrier’s instillation will remain at the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 3 (ISTB3) on the ASU Polytechnic campus for visitors, as well as resident students, staff and faculty, to enjoy.

Installing art in the building not only serves to add interest to the building’s modern architecture, but also serves a higher purpose, said Gary Dirks, director of LightWorks and director of the Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Great minds, from scientists and researchers to philosophers and poets, must work together to create a cultural shift toward a sustainable existence,” Dirks said. “Artists like Philip tell stories that instruct us or stimulate us into thinking about what that future is going to look like.”

Adriene Jenik, ASU School of Art director, said the relationship between LightWorks, AzCATI and the School of Art can foster and enable new insights or perspectives on the research done at the algae center.

“Our goal with this pilot artist residency (what we hope will be the first of many) is to conduct our own creative research and outcomes alongside the algae researchers,” Jenik said. “The complex processes and systems being designed and pursued in the building can be distilled into an affective experience that goes beyond illustrative diagrams and bullet points, further enabling the realization of a sustainable future.”

Written by Sarah Mason, ASU LightWorks

Originally published here in Arizona State University's "ASU News" on June 04, 2013.

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ASU LightWorks’ Dr. Ellen Stechel to Showcase Solar-to-fuel Solutions at 50th International Paris Air Show

published June 3, 2013, 11:40 am

The International Paris Air Show, inaugurated in 1909, is the world’s oldest (and largest) aviation show, drawing participants from all over the world. Open to both professionals and the general public, it is the leading global networking event in the aerospace industry and a prime location for the development and display of leading edge aviation and space innovations. The show is organized by Salon International de l'Aeronautique et de l'Espace (SIAE), a subsidiary of Groupement des Industries Françaises Aéronautiques et Spatiales (GIFAS). This year’s event will take place June 17-23, 2013 at Le Bourget Exhibition Center.

(Promotional poster for the 50th International Paris Air Show.)

ASU LightWorks Deputy Director, Dr. Ellen Stechel, will have a booth at the Paris Air Show to discuss LightSpeed Solutions, a collaborative initiative that advocates the awareness and advancement of solar-to-fuel technologies and recycled CO2 waste. The LightSpeed mission statement is as follows:

“LightSpeed Solutions communicates exciting innovations for technologies on the roadmap to marketable and sustainable solar fuels. We are passionate about recycling waste CO2 as a feedstock to create liquid hydrocarbons using sunlight and brackish water. We aim to produce low carbon, scalable and infrastructure compatible transportation fuels initially hybridizing with natural gas and biomass. We can capitalize on cheap and abundant natural gas in the near term and avoid locking in a high-carbon future in the long term. Together we can overcome our urgent energy and climate challenges with sunlight to fuel solutions.”

At the Paris Air Show, Dr. Stechel will place particular emphasis on using solar-to-fuel options to create jet fuel that is both commercially scalable and sustainable. The following infographic demonstrates the solar fuels “roadmap” concept.

View high-res version

Dr. Stechel recently published a “Thought Leader Series” piece with the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) titled, “Low Carbon Fuels From Sunlight: Is it possible? Is it practical?” Click here for more information on this piece, which discusses the technical aspects of solar-to-fuel technologies and LightSpeed’s position in communicating them.

The world sits at the crossroad of a great energy shift. Transportation fuels are just one small piece of the carbon emissions problem. Atmospheric CO2 levels just reached 400 ppm for the first time in the history of humankind. The Scripps Research CO2 Group offers this perspective:

“An immediate cut in fossil-fuel emissions by 55 percent is clearly not even remotely possible, so CO2 will continue its relentless rise. Keeping CO2 below 450 ppm will also be very difficult, as this will require immediately leveling off of fossil fuel emissions and then cutting emissions to below 30 percent of present levels over the next 50 years or so. If nothing is done to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, CO2 could keep rising for centuries, depending on the amount of coal, natural gas, oil, and any new forms of fossil fuels that are extractable. By some estimates, the ultimate resource of fossil fuels may be large enough that CO2 will rise as high as 1,600 ppm before fossil fuels are fully depleted. This would be sufficient to cause the world to warm between 4 to 10° C (7 to 18° F) with unimaginable consequences.”

LightSpeed seeks to advance technologies that tackle the carbon problem by storing sunlight and sequestering carbon above ground in the form of solar fuels, offering a transition vehicle to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.

Primary funding for LightSpeed’s presence at the Paris Air Show comes from ASU LightWorks with additional support from CSIRO and Sandia Labs.

You will find LightSpeed Solutions in the Alternative Aviation Fuels Pavilion in Hall 1 at kiosk 1-H276-1. View brochure here for more details.

You may follow the Paris Air Show on Twitter using hashtag #PAS13.

Written by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks


Connect with Dr. Stechel on Twitter:

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LightWorks Lecture Series: Dr. Mahesh Morjaria of First Solar discusses development and integration of utility scale PV technology

published May 23, 2013, 10:05 am

On April 9, 2013, Dr. Mahesh Morjaria, Vice President of Global Grid Integration at First Solar, visited Arizona State University to speak about the development and integration of utility scale PV technology and its transition as a mainstream power source. The topic was separated into a morning and evening lecture. The morning lecture focused on addressing the need to develop both scale and reliability of utility PV plants to make solar energy more affordable and sustainable for the future. The second lecture focused on explaining the transition of solar power from serving what has previously been a subsidy driven market to a more sustainable one that poses as competition with the fossil fuel market.

LightWorks Lecture Series: Dr. Morjaria
LightWorks Lecture Series: Dr. Morjaria. Photo taken by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks.

Morning Lecture: The Development of Utility Scale PV Plants

In his first lecture, Dr. Morjaria explained what it takes to develop and operate a large utility scale PV plant. Utility scale PV plants have become cost-effective, therefore the incorporation of grid-friendly PV plants is now a large part of First Solar’s overall development plan. According to Dr. Morjaria, a successful path to grid flexibility is by following the steps of the solar value chain.

  1. Policy and Sustainability

    By starting with policy and sustainability standards, the ideal grid system can be visualized. “In general people like solar because it’s clean and doesn’t create environmental issues,” said Dr. Morjaria. “But the modules themselves need to be sustainable as well”. Policy and sustainability standards help drive efficiency advances of PV technology. “As we continue to improve efficiency we have the potential to make solar more affordable and more sustainable as well,” Dr. Morjaria said. First Solar is currently focusing on developing thin film PV technology. The thin film PV modules produce a higher sustainable energy yield and degrade far less than then the conventional solar energy modules.
  2. Development and Financing

    Dr. Morjaria explained that solar energy, in general, is low density energy. This means that we need a lot of land to capture that energy. First Solar must practically consider where utility scale PV plants can be developed. Dr. Morjaria explained that if you are living in Manhattan there is no room for solar power plants, but there is plenty of land in Arizona and California. In general, the amount of energy that we need in the United States can be captured in the amount of land used in these areas. The challenge is keeping environmental mitigation in mind. Dr. Morjaria said that community outreach for a power-purchase agreement and research of natural habitat will help the development and financing areas of future utility scale PV plants. 
  3. Grid Integration and Plant Yield

    The stability and reliability of power grids and plant yield is an important aspect to the utility scale PV power plant. Dr. Morjaria said that the ability to predict the performance of the plant will keep the electricity grid stabilized. He gave the example of load balancing, which is the ability to forecast the amount of energy that can be produced in a day before it happens. For example, let’s say tomorrow is going to be a hot day. The use of air-conditioning is going to go up in buildings to cope with the heat. Through load balancing, utility scale PV plants can control the demand of energy produced for that day.
  4. Engineering and Construction

    Engineering cost-effective, well-designed, and grid-friendly PV enhances reliability at the power plant. Dr. Morjaria gave the example of constructing modules to be consistently following the sun through the process of module mounting configuration. These modules are able to capture the most amount of sunlight in a given day in order to save power and generate electricity during the evening. He also explained that PV plants have the capability to build 1MW of energy a day. Through construction being able to take off this quickly, the production of the utility scale PV power plant can go into operation right away. “There is not any other technology that can generate the speed of that power,” Dr. Morjaria said.
  5. Operations and Maintenance

    Dr. Morjaria explained that a utility scale PV power plant is much easier to maintain than a conventional power plant. “You go to a PV plant and there’s very little sound and you wonder if it’s actually working,” said Dr. Morjaria. “It’s a lot different from a fuel power plant.” Through new technologies, utility scale PV power plants are able to operate and maintain daily operations in brand new ways. Dr. Morjaria gave the example of the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) which collects data from the whole plant for remote access. Through SCADA, First Solar can look at their utility scale PV power plants all over the globe to make sure everything is running smoothly. 

Evening Lecture: Solar Power’s Transition into a Mainstream Generation Resource

Dr. Morjaria began his talk with three key messages:

  • Photovoltaic (PV) solar electricity has become competitive in many markets, shifting from policy-driven growth to basic generation economics.
    • Favorable value proposition: clean energy with hedge on fuel price volatility
    • Solar energy already <50% of diesel generation cost
    • With 100 GW installed to date, PV contributes <1% of total world electricity generation. But solar energy has potential to reach over 25% global electricity by 2050.
    • Challenges include achieving scale in existing energy mix, grid integration and a few others

Dr. Morjaria noted that solar resources are abundant, accounting for a renewable 23,000 terra-watt yield per year as opposed to coal (900 per year), oil (240 per year), and others that yield even less and are non-renewable sources pulled from reserves. To date, 100GW of PV have been installed globally, converting solar irradiance into usable electricity. “Solar is approaching a tipping point,” Morjaria said, with a continually growing competitiveness worldwide.

Morjaria outlined the way First Solar is leading in PV manufacturing by providing outstanding leadership across the solar value chain and holding many “first” records in global module recycling, breaking the $1/watt cost barrier, producing 1GW in a single year, and others. First Solar also has the fastest energy payback time of all current PV technologies, requiring less than one year of operation to recover the energy required to fabricate the system. In addition to this, First Solar’s PV CdTe technology has the smallest carbon footprint and requires the least amount of water use of all current solar technologies.

 LightWorks Lecture Series: Dr. Morjaria
A snapshot of some of First Solar’s milestones. Photo taken by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks.

On a global scale, solar PV has the potential to drive serious change in power and electricity use because it is scalable, clean, and sustainable, and it complements the current power portfolio by acting as “a hedge against fuel price volatility.” Morjaria identifies the main global PV demand drivers as:

  • CO2 Reductions
  • Energy Security
  • Fossil Fuel Savings
  • Energy Diversity & Fuel Price Volatility
  • Time-to-Power
  • Off Grid Energy Access
  • Hybrid Solutions/Unique Applications
  • Time-of-Day Matching

While solar power has vast potential as an energy source, there are key challenges to keep in mind. Grid flexibility is crucial to meeting operational challenges. There is a need for resources that can rapidly adjust to address variability and more concentrated solar power with thermal storage. A solar future is secure, Morjaria argues, but integration into a global energy mix will take time because of issues with infrastructure, public policy/land use, energy storage, balancing grid flexibility, distributed PV, and overall long-term planning.

Morjaria concluded by reiterating that PV solar electricity has already become competitive in many markets, shifting growth from policy to basic generation economics. He restated that 100GW are already installed globally with a projected 400-600GW of worldwide installations by 2020. The primary challenges exist in achieving scale in the energy mix and grid integration.

Morjaria ended his talk with a quote by famous business thinker, Peter Drucker, who said “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The transition from conventional power plants to utility scale PV power plants is not an easy task. By providing both a plan of action and bringing the conversation to the public, we can see that First Solar is advancing research and development to benefit the future of utility scale PV power plants. These two lectures were sponsored by ASU LightWorks. Visit the ASU LightWorks event page to follow up on our upcoming lecture series.

ASU LightWorks Flickr Photo Stream of Dr. Morjaria Lecture.

Written by Gabrielle Olson and Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks

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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.

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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

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