LightWorks Blog

R&D Matters: Modified Algae and the Frankenstein Problem

published October 16, 2012, 11:08 am

A few weeks ago, Ohio State University’s Emily Caldwell published a news article on a recent paper published in BioScience magazine about the potential environmental impacts of modifying algae, a process that is being done in labs across the country (and the globe) for research in biofuels. The paper is titled “Genetically Engineered Algae for Biofuels: A Key Role for Ecologists” (Note, this article is available by paid subscription only; citation available at the end of this post). Caldwell converses with Dr. Allison Snow, one of the authors of the paper. The paper states a concern for uninhibited algal research and the prospect of modified algae escaping into the wild. Would they survive?  Would they evolve or hybridize? What sorts of effects might this have on an entire ecosystem? It is a conversation that should be familiar to us.

Swamp Thing. Photo Credit: Marvel DC Comics.

  • “I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created.”
  • “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
  • “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

Although that’s a picture of Swamp Thing (a pond scum hybrid of sorts), these quotes are all the musings of Dr. Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

These iconic quotes are iconic for a reason. They exemplify a scenario in which a scientist is ultimately destroyed by the fruits of their scientific pursuits. This is a valid concern for all new technological research, so the concerns with modified algae are certainly not without merit. This isn’t to say that modified algae (which the paper sometimes refers to as ‘genetically engineered’ or ‘GE’ algae) is some sort of ecological plague waiting to wreak havoc on the natural world, nor is the paper a condemnation of the algal research currently underway. After reading the paper, however, there are some key points that could be further illuminated.

Researcher Allison Snow states, "If they’re grown in big, open ponds, which is mainly what we’re talking about, could the newer types of microalgae get out into nature and mingle. We need to know if they can survive and whether they can hybridize or evolve to become more prolific when they get out of a controlled environment...If they can survive, we also need to know whether some types of genetically engineered blue-green algae, for example, could produce toxins or harmful algal blooms—or both" (Caldwell).

Blue-green algae bloom in Morning Glory Pool at Yosemite National Park, WY. Photo credit: Britannica.

This is certainly a valid concern. We should determine, to the best of our abilities, what type of environmental impact these newly engineered algae and cyanobacteria will have on current ecosystems should such an event occur. Right now there are large algal ponds at AzCATI, which is situated here in the Sonoran Desert. Desert climates, like the one here in this valley, are prime grounds for algae cultivation (we’ve written before about this) and with relatively no freshwater nearby the facilities (and certainly no ocean), this is just one more reason that Arizona provides the prime location for algal research. The Department of Energy thinks so, too.

Another of Snow’s critiques is that few of the details are made public because of business competition on the path to commercialization. Crops like soybeans and corn (other sources of biofuel) have more documented breeding histories and genetic research, something algae lacks because of its relative novelty in the field.

“There’s a community of people like me,” she says, “who study genetically engineered crops and how they interact with the environment, and we need to get this started with algae” (Caldwell).

Snow notes that she sees many indications that algae is growing in popularity and is ultimately deemed a technology worth funding in a variety of sectors—in business and government, especially. However, she also recognizes that in order for algae to be an efficient and sustainable biofuel source, it will require breakthroughs in biotech. That research continues daily, but the results thus far are promising.

Snow and her colleague Val Smith (co-author of the paper) offer a few suggestions about how to prevent the potential of an algae outbreak. To begin with, they argue for a comparative study that examines algae strains cultivated for large-scale commercialization and their natural counterparts outside of the lab to determine their respective differences. They also suggest a second option of genetically engineering what they refer to as a “suicide gene” that would essentially make the algae self-annihilate before they could infiltrate the wild. This last option is a bit more controversial. It raises some bioethical questions and could also be heavily detrimental if the algae were able to get out and reproduce before they self-destruct. The extreme possibility being that it could eradicate certain strains of algae in the wild if the suicide gene were inherited and passed on to other wild strains. However, Snow and Smith recognize the threats inherent in such an endeavor. They write:

"If such precautions are taken in lieu of thorough environmental assessments, more information should be required to ensure their long-term success and to prevent (genetically engineered) algae from evolving to silence or overcome biological traits that are designed to kill them" (Snow and Smith 766).

The next issue Snow brings up is another topic we’ve discussed before: algaculture, or algae as agriculture. Crop plants like soy and corn are already recognized as agricultural biomass. What this means is that the crops specifically modified for biomass cultivation, prior to commercialization, are grown and tested in various outdoor environments because of the permitting processes associated with crop farming. This essentially aids in making public the efforts being achieved without disclosing any of the proprietor’s exclusive research data. With algae, the strains used and their modifications would be public without having to disclose specific findings in terms of biofuel production and technology. Snow and Smith use the USDA’s environmental releases as an example of the kind of transparency that is not present in current algae research (767). In Arizona, algae are now considered agriculture under HB 2225 and HB 2226, but this is not a standard nationwide—yet.

AzCATI grand opening 126 

Harvesting algae at AzCATI. Photo credit: Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks.

The news article closes with a quote from Snow.

“We’re trying to be constructive and get the word out, to get the conversation going” (Caldwell).

Conversation is a good place to start, and it’s a conversation worth having. As of now, there is a growing market for biofuels, and with recent crop conditions from summer droughts, non-food source biofuels like algae are becoming highly sought after alternative fuel sources. The minimal environmental impacts and high yield-per-acre are equally attractive characteristics of algae biofuel.

A few months ago, SBI Energy reported an investment shift in algae biofuels, predicting 43.1% market growth annually through 2015. Government funding is quickly being replaced by strategic partnerships from a wide range of industries in the energy sector. Private funding and venture capital will also act as contributors through 2015. Despite this shift, some government sectors are still heavily supportive of algae biofuels.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus contributed to a UT-San Diego piece where he supported military biofuel initiatives and expressed the need for U.S. military branches to transform their energy sources in order to remain a global power.  He writes:

“I firmly believe the Navy should purchase biofuels for sustained operations at prices that are cost competitive with petroleum. That is official Defense Department policy. Several studies suggest that could happen within 10 years, but we can significantly shorten that timeline if we partner with private industry to bring costs down.”

Snow and Smith are not the only ones looking for a more collaborative biofuel development process. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a proposal for “A Greener Biofuels Tax Credit” in 2011 that highlights the failures of current policies that aid in prohibiting the advancement of next-generation biofuels. In the proposal, the council calls for technology-neutral market incentives that award measurable environmental performance over volume alone. They argue that current policies do not allow for a sustainable biofuels industry and that new incentives will encourage innovation. Like Snow and Smith, they also call for a USDA developed tool to score biomass production and third-party assessments of biofuel producers. Brian Siu of the NRDC wrote a follow up post to the Senate Finance Committee’s extension of the cellulosic ethanol income tax credit. He reiterates many of the issues in the NRDC proposal but also warns about the reckless development of biofuels that could come about as a result of not assessing the environmental impacts of the biomass sources. He also applauds the qualification made to the tax credit that now considers algae among these feedstocks.

Clearly, there are many facets to the biofuel issue, and it’s great that people like Snow and Smith, Secretary Mabus, and the NRDC are shedding light on the areas that are most in need of attention. However, the underlying theme running throughout this narrative is funding.

Siu states, “Commercializing these better biofuels requires continuous investment and experience to reduce cost and risk.”

Snow and Smith say, "As GE algal strains are developed for large-scale facilities, we suggest that ecologists and other researchers will need access to basic information, access to relevant strains, independent authority to conduct research, and funding to build a rigorous scientific foundation that can support objective and quantitative risk assessment" (767).

Secretary Mabus gives his version as, "America looked to fuel savings and alternative energy in its drive for victory in World War II. In 1944, Congress passed the Liquid Synthetic Fuels Act, which authorized $30 million (nearly $370 million in 2010 dollars) to construct synthetic-fuel demonstration plants. The United States paid $58 per barrel for that synthetic fuel ($755 in today’s dollars), far higher than the $15 to $19 per barrel market price for petroleum at the time.

Today we have an opportunity to make another defense-critical investment in a viable, domestic alternative fuel industry."

Research and development (R&D) is absolutely critical in creating technology that is viable, commercially successful, and sustainable. Modified algae and cyanobacteria have vast potential as alternative drop-in fuels for global energy demands, but they must be researched like any other new science—and research takes money. Dr. Frankenstein didn’t fail because he altered nature. He failed because there was no collaborative, supportive process in place to help monitor and direct the research to make sure it was a beneficial venture that produced a measurable advantage for society at large.

Written by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks

Print Source:

Snow, Allison A., and Val H. Smith. “Genetically Engineered Algae for Biofuels: A Key Role for Ecologists.” BioScience 62.8 (2012): 765-768. Environment Complete.

Web Sources:

Caldwell, Emily. “Ecologist: Genetically Engineered Algae For Biofuel Pose Potential Risks That Should Be Studied. Research and Innovation Communications. The Ohio State University Office of Media and Public Relations. 20 Aug. 2012. Web. <>.

Mabus, Ray. “Guest Perspective: US Navy Continuing Its Long Tradition of Energy Transformation.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. 9 Sept. 2012. Web. <>.

Siu, Brian. “Biofuel Tax Policy: Short Term Progress, Long Term Challenges.” Switchboard: Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog. 20 Aug. 2012. Web. <>.

Additional information:

ISTB 4 Grand Opening: Panel Discussion Highlights

published October 3, 2012, 12:45 pm


Robot cutting ribbon for the grand opening of the ISTB 4 building. Photo by Sydney Lines.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 marked the grand opening of the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) on ASU Tempe campus. In celebration of this event, the Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development (OKED) hosted a forum discussing how activities and research at ISTB 4 and ASU affect the local economy and state. The “Exploring the Economic Impact of Research in Arizona” forum hosted a renowned group of panelists that represented the fields of research that are now housed at the ISTB 4 building. OKED Senior Vice President, Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, was the moderator of the forum and began with introducing each panelist as a representation of the three interdisciplinary topic areas to discuss: earth and space exploration, security and defense, and energy and sustainability.

Panelists and their research facilities (listed in order of appearance):

Earth and Space Exploration:

  • Kip Hodges, ASU School of Earth and Science Exploration Director and Professor
  • Phil Christensen, Regents’ Professor, ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration

Security and Defense:

  • Werner Dahm, Director, ASU Security and Defense Systems Initiative
  • William Chapman, Chief Technologist, Raytheon Missile Systems

Energy and Sustainability:

  • Gary Dirks, Director, ASU LightWorks

  • Julie Zimmerman, Associate Professor, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University


“Exploring the Economic Impact of Research” From right to left: Moderator Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, and panelists Kip Hodges, Phil Christensen, Werner Dahm, William Chapman, Julie Zimmerman, Gary Dirks. Photo by Sydney Lines.

Dr. Kip Hodges of the School of Earth and Science Exploration (SESE) discussed the school’s area of research that will now be located within the ISTB 4 building. The research areas that SESE concentrates on include planetary systems, earth history/evolution/current state, and the evolution of societies. Hodges emphasized that science is a combination of experimental, theoretical, and observational. Hodges said, “We continue to emphasize observational science, but it does not get its due.”  ISTB 4 will host more opportunities to expand observational science, such as geology, in terms of education and research. “We love to concentrate on education”, Hodges said, and also noted plans to develop a strong K-12 outreach program within the building.

Phil Christensen, also of SESE, discussed his area of interest which is developing Mars research, discovery, and education. Christensen opened with saying, “For me, science is discovery and exploration, but it’s also about new ideas and new ways of thinking.” ISTB 4 will host an outlet for researchers and students to invent, create, and develop technologies needed for the future. Christensen praised the opportunity of education that will be done at ISTB 4 and the importance of “training explorers of tomorrow.”

Werner Dahm of the Security Defense Initiative (SDSI) highlighted the ambitious goals that SDSI plans to have at ISTB 4. Dahm said, “We are establishing entirely new mechanisms here at ASU.” SDSI focus areas are technology, law and policy, and root socio-cultural and socio-economic causes. Because Arizona is fifth on the list of aerospace employment nationally, Dahm expects that the research and education being done in the ISTB 4 building will provide a tremendous economic impact for ASU.

William Chapman spoke on behalf of Raytheon Missile Systems and provided an overview of the various types of missiles that are currently being designed and produced in Tucson, Arizona. Chapman emphasized the point that Raytheon invests in research and that the technology and talent taking place at ASU will be “incredibly important to further and continue missile research.” 

Gary Dirks, director of ASU LightWorks, spoke about sustainability and energy practices that will need to be considered in all areas of education and research for the future. Dirks' focused area of interest was discussing the future of renewable energy in Arizona. Dirks said about LightWorks, “Our vision is to be an active player to new approaches, create a new industry, and encourage consciousness of energy security and energy justice.” Dirks also spoke about the recent accomplishment of the Department of Energy awarding a $15 million grant for ASU to lead the first ever national algae testbed ATP3. “This will provide many commercial opportunities,” Dirks said. “Researchers from all over will want to come to ASU to contribute in this ground breaking research.”


Photo of Gary Dirks during his presentation. Photo by Sydney Lines.

Julie Zimmerman focused on the concept of sustainability and the impact that it has to achieve challenges we wish to see for our city’s future. “It is important to know what problems we want to solve,” Zimmerman said. Through the advancement of technologies and introducing new areas of sustainable design, education and research, sustainability is sure to be instilled in many areas of life and will have a tremendous economic impact. “Sustainability is really about designing for tomorrow,” Zimmerman said.

The forum was then opened into an interactive “Q&A” session. Some of the questions included:

Q. How important is the ISTB 4 building to ASU? What is the value in having interdisciplinary research and activities?

Christensen: “I think it is essential for intellectual development and collaboration. Bringing scientists, engineers, and researches together is fundamental to what a university does.”

Q. What are the economic drivers that will move companies to be more sustainable?

Dirks: “Oil companies will take more interest in biofuels as a commercial opportunity. Oil companies will need places to invest money and those who see climate change as being an issue will be the ones out on the leading edge. I am very optimistic that business is going into this space.”

Q. What is the trade-off for sustainability and renewable energy? Is it conceivable that Arizona could export solar energy?

Zimmerman: “If we implement renewable sources, we won’t have to push for as much conservation and lifestyle changes.”

Dirks: “We can absolutely export solar power. We have to build relationships with our neighbors, particularly California, to work toward advancing solar technologies. Exploring high voltage lines that could reach to Texas or out to the East Coast will be what we need to look into.”

The ISTB 4 building boasts eight-stories into the sky offering a series of complex labs, world-class conference facilities, spaces dedicated to public outreach, and visible laboratories. It is the goal of researchers, such as these panelists, to see their legacy of interdisciplinary research, discovery, education, and outreach continued, and ASU’s ISTB 4 will allow for that accomplishment.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Video: ISTB 4 Grand Opening by ASU News

ASU's new science building will push boundaries of research, exploration from Keith Jennings on Vimeo.

Additional Information:


Arizona Sustainable Cities Series: Mesa

published October 2, 2012, 3:55 pm

As the final stop in our Sustainable Cities Series, we look at the City of Mesa, headed by Mayor Scott Smith. The City of Mesa has a long tradition of being pioneers. In 2012, it is a city that is committed to a number of green initiatives that help to continue that pioneer spirit all the way to sustainability. According to Mesa’s city website, sustainability is not only the merge of green ideas and environmental impact, but also the acts of “creating a better community, boosting economic growth, and promoting a vibrant social network.”

Mayor Smith (left) at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Anzio’s Landing in celebration of going solar. Photo credit: City of Mesa.

Here are just some of the initiatives currently in place:

Solar Pilot Program


Photo credit: City of Mesa.

City of Mesa electric customers are able to receive up to $5000 (for up to 5 KW) in incentives for residential solar and up to $10,000 (for up to 10 KW) for commercial. The Mesa Energy Resources Department’s annual budget allows for utilizing $100,000 worth of these solar incentives per year on a first-come, first-served basis. In return for these solar installations, the city not only is improved by the environmental benefits, but the city receives renewable energy tax credits as well. As it is a one-year pilot program, the incentives will be available from July 2012 thru June 2013. Find out more information and how to apply for the Solar Pilot Program.

Fire Station 219: Mesa’s First LEED Certified Building

Mesa Fire Station 219

Photo credit: Mesa Fire Department.

This brand new fire station in East Mesa opened its doors in May 2012. Some of the many sustainable features and equipment installed in this fire station include solar panels, a solar hot water system, recycled construction materials, solar-reflective roofing materials for energy efficiency, and much more. LEED certified buildings must meet very specific qualifications in order to wear the LEED badge, and this is a great accomplishment for Mesa. Find out more information on Fire Station 219.

iMesa Community Garden 


Photo credit: City of Mesa.

The Mesa Urban Garden (MUG) is a new community garden, currently under construction, that is scheduled to open in January 2013. The mission, as stated on the MUG website, is “to inspire sustainable urban living through education, community involvement and creative cooperation to strengthen families and enhance and beautify our community.” It is a project that will add a community-run, cooperative sustainability element to the city, and there are a number of events and dedication ceremonies coming up. There is also a need for volunteers! See how you can help out with MUG.


Initiated in San Francisco in 2009, Solar Day has now become an international day of solar awareness and participation, and it is celebrated on or near the Summer Solstice. The City of Mesa participates in Solar Day. This year, Solar Day fell on June 20, 2012, but the City of Mesa has kept a page of abundant resources, tips, tricks, and program details for anyone interested in continuing to use or learn about solar energy. Find out more about Mesa solar.

While the City leadership has collaborated on making sustainable initiatives a reality for Mesa, Mayor Smith has also demonstrated leadership that promotes sustainability. Because of his business and leadership experience, Mayor Smith has been cited as having been instrumental in attracting First Solar to Mesa, a decision that has the potential to bring 600 green jobs to the city. He was also a panelist at the Arizona Solar Summit earlier this year and a speaker at AzCATI's grand opening this past spring at the ASU Polytechnic Campus in East Mesa. Mayor Smith was also present at the ribbon cutting ceremony at Mesa-area restaurant Anzio's Landing in celebration of becoming the first solar-powered restaurant in Arizona. Mayor Smith will once again be attending the Arizona Solar Summit at ASU SkySong, which takes place next week, as part of an Arizona Mayors panel.

Mesa is also a Bicycle Friendly Community, Playful City, and Tree City USA. We congratulate the City of Mesa and Mayor Scott Smith on their sustainability efforts!

Written by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks

Additional Information:

City of Mesa -- Environment and Sustainability:

City of Mesa -- Sustainability:

Mesa Urban Garden (MUG):

Maricopa County Green Government:

Follow Mayor Smith on Twitter:


Arizona Sustainable Cities Series: An Interview with Tempe Mayor Mitchell

published September 20, 2012, 11:03 am

It is near impossible these days to research cities, businesses, or universities without coming across their sustainability initiatives. What exactly does sustainability mean? Why is it so important? ASU President Michael Crow has answered this question by saying, “Sustainability is a concept with as much transformative potential as justice, liberty, and equality.” As our world continues to grow, sustainability will be a leading factor in shaping our future environmental responsibility, accommodating population growth and resource deprivation, and introducing new economic outcomes from residential to global levels. Sustainability is the term to use when we think about designing a cleaner, brighter future.

This Tuesday, September 25, 2012, The Mesa Arts Center will be sponsoring the Sustainable Cities Conference to discuss sustainable initiatives in the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Rob Melnick, executive dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) at ASU, will lead Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton in a discussion that will address sustainability challenges and opportunities within their respective cities.

In preparation for this event, I have interviewed Mayor Mitchell to get a closer look on his take of a sustainable city. The following interview spotlights the Mayor’s current initiatives as well as his future plans to further sustainable development in Tempe.

Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell.

What green initiatives or policies are already in place for Tempe?

Tempe is a sustainable city that takes care of people, profit and the planet through a variety of innovative programs, including water and energy conservation, recycling, composting, alternative transportation, sustainable business practices and environmental stewardship. Specific programs include:

  • LEED certified green buildings – the Tempe Transportation Center, East Valley Bus Operations & Maintenance Facility and Kyrene Water Treatment Facility.
  • Energy retrofits for 23 city buildings and facilities.
  • Telemetry that provides online dashboard showing utility use of 10 city buildings.
  • Streetlight retrofits for 2,000 city street lights (old high pressure sodium lights replaced with energy-efficient induction lights).
  • Solar power installations, including: project at Tempe Beach Park (partnership between the City of Tempe and APS) that provides energy for park lights and splash pad water pump; solar panels at Household Products Collection Center; solar-powered speed limit signs; solar lighting at Town Lake Marina; solar parking meter station adjacent to Tempe City Hall.
  • Waste Grease to Biodiesel Feasibility Study.
  • Public transportation – comprehensive transit network that includes fixed-route bus system, free Orbit neighborhood circulators and light rail.
  • Comprehensive bicycle facility network with more than 165 miles of bikeways.
  • Tempe values our rich social and cultural history, and supports a variety of community programs to preserve and celebrate those assets, including the Carl Hayden Campus of Sustainability and the Rio Salado Foundation.
  • Curbside residential and commercial recycling programs – celebrating 20 years of recycling services!
  • Composting and green waste programs for residents and for city parks.
  • State-of-the-art Household Products Collection Center.
  • Water conservation programs that include: xeriscaping workshops for residents, low-flow toilet rebates, gardening grants for schools, xeriscaping conversion rebates, school outreach presentations and a variety of educational materials and programs.

1)      What is your concept or definition of a “sustainable” city?

A sustainable city is one that – like Tempe – supports programs, policies and practices that provide environmental, economic and social sustainability. Sustainable cities respect their history, their present and their future generations. They create the smallest possible ecological footprint, using resources and land most efficiently while providing a high quality of life for their residents, businesses and visitors.

The crux of this is creating the smallest ecological footprint possible-- producing the lowest quantity of pollution possible, efficiently using land; composting used materials, recycling, or converting waste-to-energy -- thus minimizing the city's overall contribution to climate change.

2)      What efforts have you made so far to make Tempe more sustainable?

During my time on Council, I have supported programs to make the city as an organization more environmentally responsible (e.g., energy-efficient and green buildings, retrofits to city buildings, energy-efficient streetlights, solar power installations) and programs that help our residents to live more sustainably – public transportation, bikeways, recycling and composting. 

I’ve supported smart land-use policies like our Community Design Principles, wherein we have building height guidelines that allow for high rises in our most densely developed area, downtown Tempe, and the creation of a transit corridor along the light rail line that allows for higher densities so that more people can live near mass transit. We also allow existing commercial developments to add residential components in the hope of getting people closer to the resources they need. These mixed-use developments will become even more popular as populations become older.

My council colleagues and I proudly support ASU’s new Athletic Facilities District that is being planned as an EcoDistrict, meaning that it will focus on energy-saving buildings and infrastructure while drawing companies that specialize in green research and products. This district is 330 acres and could add 7 million square feet of green development to the heart of our downtown.

ASU’s main campus in Tempe is also home to the nation’s largest sustainability program for a university. We partner with the Global Institute for Sustainability and ASU researchers on a great many projects, including water research, solar opportunities and more. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with ASU and our other community partners on projects that make our region more sustainable.

3)      Where would you like to see our city in 20 years in terms of sustainability?

Maurice Strong, who is widely credited with globalizing the environmental movement, said, “The future health of our planet will be determined in our cities.” In the Phoenix Metro area, Tempe has long been a leader in sustainability – with our public transportation system, green buildings, recycling and many other initiatives. Our forward-thinking residents and city leaders have spearheaded and supported policies and programs that promote environmental, economic and social responsibility.

In 20 years, I see Tempe being a city where sustainability is just a way of life – a natural part of our business practices and way of living that’s so ingrained we don’t even think of it as being anything different. I see our residents and businesses living and working smart to produce minimal waste, recycling and composting to minimize landfill waste.

I see Tempe continuing its tradition of collaborating with ASU and our regional partners to create innovative new initiatives in sustainability. I see our residents continuing to be our partners in finding more sustainable ways to live and creating a sustainable community for future generations of Tempeans.

4)      Do you believe it is important for ASU students to be engaged in supporting Tempe sustainability (even if they are not necessarily from Tempe)?

Arizona State University is integral part of our city – including its institutions, as well as faculty, staff and students, many of whom live in Tempe.  Many ASU students will remain here after they get their degrees, finding careers here, raising their families and calling Tempe home. I and several of my City Council colleagues are proud alumni of ASU. Many of our community leaders – past and present – were once ASU students, and we know that many of our leaders of the future will come from ASU. ASU students are important members of our community; they do and can have major impacts on the community – both positive and negative. We look to ASU students to be our partners in sustainability – recycling and composting to reduce landfill waste; biking, walking and using public transportation; conserving water; working on important university research initiatives to contribute to our future as a sustainable community.

The Sustainable Cities Conference will be held this Tuesday, September 25, 2012, at the Mesa Arts Center. If you wish to attend what is sure to be a great discussion, please RSVP here.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Additional Information:

Arizona Sustainable Cities Series: Phoenix

published September 17, 2012, 11:00 am

In anticipation of the September 25th, 2012 Mayor’s Forum on Sustainable Cities, hosted by the ASU School of Sustainability, we are spotlighting the cities of Mesa, Tempe, and Phoenix in preparation for discussions on sustainable policy and governance. Phoenix is the first installation of our September Sustainable Cities theme.


Mayor Stanton with Dr. Steven Chu at the unveiling of Solar Phoenix 2. Photo by Department of Energy.

The City of Phoenix boasts a variety of green projects. Some of the notable solar installations include community centers, transit canopies, city park lights, restroom facilities, and more. A full list (including non-solar renewable energy projects) can be found on the City of Phoenix website. Additionally, under the leadership of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, the city of Phoenix has partnered with National Bank of Arizona, Arizona Public Service (APS), Salt River Project (SRP), and Paramount Solar to bring more cost efficient, sustainable solar energy options to the Phoenix area through the Solar Phoenix 2 initiative.

Some of the key components of Solar Phoenix 2:

  • By the end of 2012, it is expected to put solar panels on 1,000 Phoenix roofs and save users 10-15% in monthly energy costs
  • It is expected to create 150 jobs and pour $25 million into the local economy
  • It is currently the largest city-sponsored residential solar program in the country

Solar Phoenix 2 arose out of Solar Phoenix, a prior city-wide initiative that proved successful in 2010 by providing residential solar options to 400 customers, generating 2.8 MW of solar power, and contributing $26 million to the local community.

In June of this year, Mayor Stanton and the Phoenix City Council declared June 20th “Solar Day” and recognized solar leaders from a variety of Phoenix districts. Leaders were selected based on their contributions to advancing solar power in the Phoenix area, helping to make the city a leader in sustainability.

In his State of the City Address earlier this year, Mayor Stanton placed emphasis on the promising growth in bioscience careers here in the Valley, the advantage of public-private partnerships, and the necessity of making Phoenix a national solar leader.

“By the end of 2012 Phoenix will be double the amount of solar cells on city buildings. This is in addition to the Rental Car Center at Sky Harbor Airport that opened earlier this year with one of the largest solar arrays of its kind in the country.

We are leading the way. And we will continue to join the best and brightest in our community to push the envelope and build a brighter energy future.

To become a true national leader in green and sustainable industries sustainable thinking must become a fundamental part of our culture and permeate all of our thinking at the city of Phoenix.

Which is why, as promised I have appointed a Sustainability Advocate to work directly with me in the Mayor’s Office. And why we have convened a community-based Sustainability Advisory Committee. We are integrating sustainable strategies into our everyday operations and long-term decision-making. Sustainable thinking can provide solutions to some of our city’s most vexing challenges.” (Transcript available) 

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has also gone solar, as Mayor Stanton noted. Atop the rental car center sits 12,000 solar panels generating 5.4 MW of energy, providing over 50% of the facility’s power needs. Additionally, Sky Harbor has its own set of green initiatives and is working diligently to reduce the environmental impacts of travel.

Sky Harbor solar panels. Photo by Sky Harbor.

We commend Phoenix for quickly becoming a leading city in solar energy and Mayor Greg Stanton for his solar efforts. Tune in on September 25th for the Mayor’s Forum!

Written by Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks

Additional information:

Follow Mayor Stanton on Twitter:

Mayor’s Forum Flyer (PDF):

Mayor Stanton’s Guest Post for the DOE:

Phoenix Sustainability Initiatives:

ASU’s Solar Energy Engineering & Commercialization Program: Preparing Students to Be the Solar Entrepreneurs of the Future

published August 29, 2012, 11:02 am

With the 2012 presidential election coming up, energy policy ensures itself as a frontline issue that both candidates need to continue to address. The question of where and how we will produce our energy will need to be determined in order to accommodate our future energy demands. Renewable energy has become a hot topic of discussion due to rapidly advancing clean technology as a result of the necessity to find ways to be more sustainable and efficient in our methods of energy use and the ever-present impacts we continue to see in our environment from our current methods. That being said, it is no coincidence that the push for wide acceptance of renewable energy in U.S. (and global) energy policy has influenced the increased interest in renewable energy studies at universities across the nation. Students who are interested in renewable energy studies will be the ones to fill the demand of our growing green job market and help conduct the research to foster the appropriate technology to do so. Students here at ASU are already fulfilling these roles.

I was able to talk to Karen Dada, project manager of ASU’s Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization Program this week as she gears up for ASU’s fall 2012 semester. The Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization Program kicked off its first semester in spring 2011 making it the newest addition to ASU’s Professional Science Masters (PSM) degree. The PSM, affirmed by the National Science Foundation, is specifically designed to more efficiently prepare scientists for industry, non-profit, and government sector related careers.

“The PSM degree illustrates a workplace model rather than an academic model,” Dada said. “We’re not just doing what we think needs to be done, we’re doing what the industry directly tells us.”

Students who are completing the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization Program work toward an applied project that focuses on high-impact solutions to solar energy and commercialization problems as opposed to a thesis paper that most graduate degrees require. Students work alongside a mentor to develop an individual project that ranges from technical engineering to energy policy. The purpose of working toward an applied project is to prepare these future solar engineers to become the entrepreneurs and innovators of the future.

“Our program focuses on producing solar company entrepreneurs, project managers, and policy makers,” Dada said. “We’re really filling a niche.”   

Since its inauguration, the program has already made ASU News headlines for their students’ entrepreneurial endeavors. During his final semester studying in the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization Program, student Sage Lopez helped Sunshine Acres Children’s Care Home devise a solar-energy plan that will help control the energy costs of the home as it continues to grow. Lopez assisted in helping Sunshine Acres get closer to its goals of having a “net-zero” energy system within the next 10 years. Because of his applied project, Lopez was able to land himself a position at a San Diego-based company in the solar-energy industry after graduation.


Sage Lopez: Picture by ASU News.

Here is a list of other example applied projects from the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization Program. 

As technology changes, so does the way we utilize our resources. The energy job market will need creative and educated innovators to use technology to better our future energy demands. If students are interested in pursuing a career in solar, then look no further than pursuing the Solar Engineering and Commercialization Program degree right here at ASU.

“We need to broaden our energy base,” Dada said. “Solar in Arizona is an obvious choice, and it’s a natural fit for ASU to take the lead in helping to create a sustainable energy source for our future.”

Campus Solarization – Innovation and Education in the Valley of the Sun from ASU News on Vimeo.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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AzCATI Update: Plastic Film vs. Acrylic Photobioreactors

published August 2, 2012, 2:24 am

AzCATI continues to be a crucial forefront of innovation in biofuels, bio-product research, and commercialization of algae-based goods. The research hub has taken significant strides in their mission to serve as a national test bed to accelerate the advancement of algae technology for the future. Although there are many goals that have been accomplished, a primary focus today at AzCATI is to continue research in producing a low-cost and efficient feedstock for biofuel production. Peter Zemke, technical lead of photobioreactors at AzCATI, chatted with me last week on some progress taking place to pursue this goal.

Algae, like any plant, needs light and energy to grow. A photobioreactor (PBR) incorporates both sources of light and energy input into a reactor to provide the feedstock necessary for algae to develop. For example, an open pond is a photobioreactor because natural sunlight and energy produce algae growth; but mostly, the term photobioreactor refers to a closed system in which no direct exchange of gasses or contaminants in the environment mix with algae in their growth process. The closed photobioreactors enable AzCATI technicians to better control the algae’s biocultural conditions; such as light intensity, pH, carbon dioxide, and temperature levels.  

There are many different types of photobioreactors. Many are in use or being tested at AzCATI. Zemke's team is currently focusing on two variations of a flat-plate photobioreactor specifically for mass production of algae.

Flat-plate photobioreactors are used because of their large illumination surface area, providing a great light path, which is suitable for outdoor cultures. Another benefit is that they produce a good amount of algal biomass. Biomass is the biological material from algae that can be used or converted into energy products such as biofuel. Although they are a relatively cheaper option than other PBR’s, such as the tubular photobioreactor, flat-plate PBR’s are still very expensive nonetheless, which leads researchers to continue searching for options that offer greater possibilities in biofuel production.


Flat-plate “Acrylic” Photobioreactors. Photo by AzCATI.

The plastic film photobioreactors are a relatively new technology that is being tested at AzCATI. The results so far have proven positive, especially in the cost that it takes to maintain them. Plastic film photobioreactors are also able to produce more biomass than acrylic, and the structure, which is made up of steel bars, is more durable and will last longer than the transparent acrylic structure made up in the acrylic photobioreactors. Another benefit of thin film PBR’s is that plastic is cheap and if punctured, is easier to replace. “We are very much focused on the plastic film photobioreactors over all,” Zemke said. “The effort is so much less than the acrylic photobioreactors.”

Thin film “Plastic” Photobioreactors. Photo by AzCATI.

For the time being, it seems as if plastic film photobioreactors are the best option, however that does not mean the research stops there. It is important for AzCATI to continue research and development in finding the best strains of algae- the ones that are the best at doing various things such as biofuels, feed, pigments, or nutracuticals, thriving in harsh conditions, or cleaning up wastewater. The development of the best technology to cultivate those strains is vital. Zemke used the upcoming summer Olympics as an example of how the roles of algae strain and photobioreactor development go hand-in-hand.

“The role of research and development into algae strains is essentially to find the Olympians of the algae world,” Zemke said. “Just as athletes need the right equipment to excel at their respective sports, algae need the right photobioreactor to perform at their peak.”

Out of only a small handful of labs in the world, AzCATI is one of the biggest to conduct photobioreactor research. As a result of their photobioreactor technology, AzCATI has the capability to produce larger and more reliable quantities of algae biomass of better quality than any other research institution in the U.S. 

“Here at AzCATI, we find the Olympian algae strains, figure out what light, temperature, and mixing conditions they need to perform their best, then design or select a photobioreactor that creates these conditions for them,” Zemke said.

The path of learning how to develop better photobioreactors, in terms of performance, reliability, and cost, is still a road of research ahead. Let’s salute AzCATI for keeping up the hard work in their efforts to reach for the algae gold medal! 

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Sustainable Summer Presentation: Arizona’s Path to an Energy Efficient Summer

published June 28, 2012, 8:20 am

It’s no secret that living in Arizona during the summer can be quite the battle. With record temperatures soaring up, a group of experts specializing in how state residents can sustainably cope with these blistering sun rays gathered at the Global Institute of Sustainability last week to provide answers. The presentation touched on past, present, and the prospective future of dealing with the inevitable long, hot Arizona summers.

Mick Dalrymple- Project Manager, Energize Phoenix. Former Director, National Board, U.S. Green Building Council. Photo by Shawn Raymundo from the ASU State Press June 2012.

The speakers of this event also included:

  • Tony Brazel- Professor Emeritus, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Former Arizona State Climatologist
  • Doreen Pollack- Executive Director, Valley Permaculture Alliance. Master Gardener, Down 2 Earth Gardens
  • Luis Salazar- Architect, Salazar Associates Architects Ltd. Winner, Valley Forward Environmental Excellence Award, 2010
  • Philip VanderMeer- Associate Professor, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies. Author, Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix

Historically, the Phoenix area was a lush city with canals and plenty of trees shading the sidewalks. Buildings and houses had awnings that would shade windows in an effort to keep heat out. Irrigation canals would stimulate growth of trees and grass as well as a popular way for families to jump in for a swim in order to stay cool. Because air conditioning had not been invented yet, the implementation of shade and canals had made living in Arizona easier for residents.

Farm home and irrigation canal two miles west of Mesa in the early 1900s. (Reclamation photograph) via National Register of Historic Places Multiple property Documentation Form, Salt River Project, Arizona, prepared by Jim Bailey, Bureau of Reclamation, June 2010.

As we developed as a city, and as more people began to inhabit the Phoenix area, urban sprawl took action and the temperature began to rise. The continued construction of buildings and homes begins to rapidly grow to accommodate people, yet some have not been designed to accommodate the summer heat to provide energy efficiency. Sustainable design is a present initiative that stresses the importance of taking from history (implementing shade and an oasis environment) and planning the design of our newer buildings and homes to incorporate state-of-the-art design and technology toward energy efficiency and comfort from the heat to state residents.

The implementation of shade, plants, and sustainable design can save home and business owners significant money on their energy bill. Luis Salazar, architect for his firm Salazar Associates Architects Ltd., sees the future of all Arizona homes and businesses to incorporate just that. In his presentation, Salazar said that in order to achieve the first step of sustainable design we must embody logical and local characteristics. The sun is an example of both logical and local characteristics. When we design our buildings and homes, we have to remember that we live in an area with a vast abundance of sunlight. Salazar believes that we must move forward in utilizing energy from the sun to turn it into something beneficial to us. He sees the future city of Phoenix to have solar collectors on everything from buildings, to homes, to billboards. The sun is endlessly available in Arizona. It is necessary to incorporate the sun into sustainable design today for tomorrow’s buildings and homes.

The future of energy efficiency in Arizona is being discussed by a number of people. Mick Darlymple, the Project Manager of Energize Phoenix, explained that Energize Phoenix aims to save energy, create “green jobs”, and transform a diverse array of neighborhoods by offering cash incentives and financing to help pay for most energy efficiency improvement project costs for homes and businesses. The Energize Phoenix program was launched from a $25 million federal grant awarded to the city of Phoenix from the U.S Department of Energy Better Buildings Neighborhood Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Energize Phoenix works in partnership with ASU Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) and support from Arizona Public Service (APS).

In order to encourage the transition of greater energy efficient initiatives in Arizona, the Arizona Corporate Commission (ACC) is also working on improved energy efficient and renewable energy standards. The ACC plans to have Arizona’s public utilities required to achieve annual energy savings of at least 22% by 2020, with the savings to increase incrementally as a percent of retail energy sales in each prior calendar year to reach that goal. Up to one-third of the energy savings can result from energy efficient building codes and up to one-third of the savings can come from energy efficient appliance standards. Not only do home and business owners save money by energy efficiency improvement projects, but they also are reducing the amount of heat that is generated from using outdated energy standards.

I learned a lot from this enjoyable and thought provoking presentation; therefore, I would like to close on a few energy saving tips, told to me by Mick Darlymple, which will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Energy tips you can do today to save:

  • Change your light bulbs to LED or CFLs
  • Check and fix air ducts
  • Implement shade screens
  • Fix/add house insulation
  • Use less hot water and change your water heater’s thermostat to 120 degrees F

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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LARB Student Worker Reflects Upon EPA Granted Algae Wastewater Project

published June 14, 2012, 2:12 am

Almost one year ago, ASU graduate students and Laboratory of Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB) student workers Joshua Wray, Martha Kent, and Emil Puruhito were granted the P3 Award from the EPA for their project "Developing Commercially Viable Culture Media from Wastewaters Optimized for the Emerging Microalgae-based Biofuel Industry." The P3 Award is a national student design competition for sustainability that focuses on people, prosperity, and the planet. These forward thinking ASU graduate students incorporated the three principle ‘P’s’ necessary to win research funding toward their project for a one year period from August 15, 2011 through August 14, 2012.

Joshua Wray (right) and Emil Puruhito (left) pose with waste in one hand and biofuel in the other at AzCATI.

The objective of their project focused on finding a sustainable and cost-efficient way to use standard wastewater treatment practices to develop an inexpensive algae culture media. An algae culture media is a nutrient rich solution (along with carbon dioxide and light) that provides the materials necessary for algae to grow. Nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), and potassium (K) are all nutrients that algae love. The project concentrated on treating wastewater to develop multiple wastewater streams rich with nutrients thus creating a viable algae culture media to suffice the demand of an affordable and sustainable solution for biofuel production.

The project aimed at benefiting people as well as the planet by reducing nutrient pollution from recapturing waste nutrients, improving overall water and air quality, and creating new jobs. The project also aimed at providing additional revenue or reducing production costs of agricultural producers, as well as diminishing competition of fertilizer supplies between the biofuel industry and the food crop industry.

I talked with Joshua Wray as he reflected upon his experience with the EPA granted P3 award from the project’s very beginnings, to its present standing, and lessons learned to guide the future.

Big Beginnings

Wray first became interested in algae because of its potential to be used as a biofuel. He soon realized that the cost to fertilize enough algae for a significant amount of biofuel would be highly expensive. Wray wanted to provide a cultivation media for the growth of algae for biofuel production that would be both low-cost and sustainable to our environment. Wray, along with his fellow student workers Kent and Puruhito, began to work with dairy waste from a neighboring dairy farm to test the feasibility of using the waste as a culture media for algae growth. The team developed a process of harvesting the waste, concentrating nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that algae thrive on, and then carefully treating the media so as to not contaminate the algae culture. The results showed promise due to the success of growing a robust local strain of algae with high oil content on the waste water culture media. With a successful strategy and  help from members at AzCATI, the team applied for the P3 Phase 1 Award from the EPA website in hopes of further refining a protocol and testing media derived from different waste streams.

Wray describes working with algae as a big puzzle that must be patiently pieced. Although only in its early stages, he can clearly see his project having great potential with the future of biofuel. Wray and his fellow workers, upon winning the P3 Phase 1 Award, were able to piece more of the “algae puzzle” together and continue to move the project forward.

Picture from March 10.

Present Progress

With the success of phase I of the P3 project, the team has now moved on to incorporating swine, poultry, and municipal waste into their wastewater treatment process. Although they are still testing for a way to decrease contamination in the media, the team has been able to develop an algae culture media in just seven days.

Despite the fact the team was not awarded the P3 Phase 2 Award, they were recently awarded funding by ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative for furthering their research on production of omega-3 fats from algae. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich with health benefits and can be found in fish due to their tendency to feed on algae. Unlike omega-3 found from fish-oil, the omega-3 found in algae is mercury free and is sustainably produced from waste nutrients using sunlight to lower cost. This could be beneficial to pursuing new research in algae based foods.

Picture from February 28.

Prospective Future

What Wray intended to gain from the project was learning to create a viable algae culture media. Although they need to do more testing, in only one year Wray and his team have accomplished just that with a successful protocol adaptable to multiple waste streams.

In addition to allocating resources and developing a protocol, Wray’s highlights from the P3 project experience included trying his hand at grant writing, and being able to network, discuss, and collaborate with other grant winners at the expo in Washington D.C.

Wray firmly believes that as human population continues to grow, recycling our nutrients will be increasingly important in the future. Through his experience with the project he has learned that good grant writing and networking skills, along with perseverance to understand the science and design of good protocol, will be the main factors in continuing to move the algae industry forward. Overall, more research must be done, but the pieces of the “algae puzzle” are falling together nicely.

EPA P3 Project from ASU Research on Vimeo.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks 


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ASU’s Power Parasol: Cutting-Edge Solar Structure Implements Energy and Shade to Lot 59

published May 10, 2012, 11:56 am

The massive Lot 59 parking area, located between Sun Devil and Packard stadium, was notorious for being one of the most sweltering parking lots on ASU’s Tempe campus. Although being one of the more affordable ASU parking lots, the lack of shade and distance from campus made students dread the arrival to their car that had beyond question absorbed heat by roasting in the sun.

Lot 59 accommodates over 6000 parking spaces making it the largest black-top parking lots at the university. Because of the abundance of space and the powerful amount of sun directed in that area, Lot 59 grasped the attention of ASU and NRG Solar for the nation’s first PowerParasol™ installation.

The PowerParasol™ project marks the first partnership between ASU and NRG Solar. The innovative solar structure began as the vision of Arizona-based Strategic Solar Energy, LLC. Construction began in August 2011 and was finished by December 2011.  

PowerParasol™ is a 24-foot high solar-panel structure covering a vast 5.25 acres. The structure covers 800 parking spaces providing not only much obliged shade, but also sustainable solar energy from the panels that generate 2.1 megawatts of electricity. To give you an idea of how powerful 2.1 megawatts of solar energy is, consider that one megawatt of solar energy can power about 250 homes.


The sunshine that had previously heated up student’s cars has now transformed into valuable, clean energy through the PowerParasol™. The solar panels soak up energy from the sun while providing shade, yet still allowing natural light to shine through making areas of landscaping possible. When the sun goes down, the energy produced from the solar panels has enough power to provide nighttime lighting in the parking lot, power security cameras, and power vehicle electrical charging stations.

By implementing the PowerParasol™ over Lot 59, ASU takes a positive leap forward toward supporting solar energy in Arizona.

PowerParasol™ Grand Opening Video:

 PowerParasol™ Grand Opening Slideshow:

 More pictures available from Strategic Solar Energy, LLC.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks


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