Exploring environmental impacts of solar technologies

October 20, 2014

Even technologies promoted for good environmental reasons can sometimes have unforeseen negative consequences.

Such was the case in 1979 when the United States began adding methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) to gasoline to improve combustion and reduce harmful emissions. Water soluble, MTBE ended up seeping into groundwater and contaminating drinking supplies when gas leaked or spilled. scientists holding a photovoltaic device Download Full Image

“You can’t just look at performance during use," says Arizona State University research fellow Ben Wender. "We have to think about environmental impacts to air, water and soil systems across the life cycle of a product or technology."

In looking at these impacts, environmental engineers use a tool called the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to weigh the positive and negative environmental attributes of a new technology. The assessment analyzes the impact of a product or process at all stages – from research and development, to manufacturing and use and, finally, to future degradation and disposal.

However, the LCA tool presents a fundamental dilemma – one that engineers have grappled with for years. The tool relies on hard data that can only be collected after the product and processes have been developed and marketed – a period of time when significant, irreversible harm to the environment may already have occurred.

To address this problem, experts from ASU offer a new anticipatory approach to Life Cycle Assessment – one that explores best- and worst-case scenarios for impacts in diverse categories.

To figure out ways to anticipate multiple and varied futures with emerging technologies, researchers from two ASU centers – the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center – teamed up to conduct research on photovoltaic cells, a rapidly emerging technology used in solar panels to convert sunlight into electrical energy.

This interdisciplinary collaboration has landed Wender and colleagues top billing in the Sept. 16 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“Most of the effort in the field of LCA is focused on achieving more precision in data,” says Wender. “Often with technologies in the early development phase, there are widely varying, sometimes entirely opposing, conclusions and data.”

An anticipatory approach to Life Cycle Assessment embraces rather than tries to eliminate uncertainty or conflicting data. Instead of looking at one parameter at a time, such as whether a certain substance is likely to contaminate water and to what extent, it compares many uncertain parameters to identify an environmentally promising research agenda.

Matthew Fraser, professor in the ASU School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and executive director of Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, agrees there is greater value when broad, but imprecise data, is included in the analysis of environmental endpoints.

“It’s never A is better than B. It’s usually that there are tradeoffs between A and B,” says Fraser, who is also a co-author of the Environmental Science and Technology article. “There’s a whole field on risk assessment to understand the weighting of different priorities for different types of contaminants in the environment, and that type of uncertainty with risk assessment isn’t usually included in LCA.”

Photovoltaic (PV) devices hold immense promise for producing electricity with reduced greenhouse gases but also have the potential to inadvertently introduce new environmental harm, such as when solar panels begin to wear out.

"In 15 or 20 years, we’ll have to have a strategy for how to recover materials and deal with the waste generated from the decommissioning of the panels that are being installed today,” says Fraser.

Anticipatory Life Cycle Assessment can also illuminate new research opportunities and help prioritize research directions and funding with the greatest environmental promise, which can reduce research costs over time.

“Improving PV cell efficiency would improve the amount of energy produced during the use phase, but it might make more sense to focus on decreasing the energy intensity during manufacturing,” says Fraser. “LCA helps determine where you get the biggest bang for your buck.”

Additionally, this proactive approach opens up dialogue with those outside the lab by feeding information back to “policymakers, technology developers and others who are in a position to realign the technological trajectory,” says Thomas Seager, associate professor and Lincoln Fellow of Ethics and Sustainability in the ASU School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and another co-author of the Environmental Science and Technology article.

By incorporating diverse stakeholder perspectives into Life Cycle Assessment analyses, including integration with social systems, Seager adds, “we can keep science forward looking and in concert with policy and social needs."

Both the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, which encourage interdisciplinary projects and approaches, receive funding from the National Science Foundation, and Wender’s work has served as a point of collaboration between these two large-scale centers. In addition to Wender, 14 authors representing industry, government, engineering, risk assessment, and social science collaborated to develop and test the new Life Cycle Assessment approach for the journal article.

Working to broaden anticipatory Life Cycle Assessment of photovoltaic technology to include manufacturer and user input, Wender says his current studies "ultimately make LCA a much more robust approach to technology assessment," as different perspectives and disciplines are included.

Jennifer Pillen Banks

Communications program coordinator, Center for Nanotechnology in Society


ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre selected for new national consortium initiative headed by The Acting Company

October 20, 2014

The Arizona State University School of Film, Dance and Theatre, in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, is one of four institutions that have been selected to join The Acting Company’s new national consortium-based performance and education initiative. The initiative is a three-year long partnership that will focus on offering professional development opportunities for playwrights, actors, designers, directors and educators.

“This new initiative continues The Acting Company’s 42-year history as America’s leading national-touring repertory theater while adding new emphasis on developing concentrated and sustained relationships with schools and communities,” said The Acting Company’s board chairman, Earl D. Weiner. The Acting Company Photo by Brigitte Lacombe Download Full Image

The Acting Company was founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley in 1972 with members of the first graduating class of Juilliard’s Drama Division and has featured performers such as Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Hamish Linklater, and Rainn Wilson.

“This partnership is part of our continuing commitment to engage with professional companies and artists in ways that create exciting and valuable opportunities for our students,” said Lance Gharavi, assistant director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. “We’ve started a series of initiatives designed to make the School of Film, Dance and Theatre a kind of oasis for established artists and companies, a refuge where they can develop new work in partnership with our faculty, staff, and students. Our students benefit, the company benefits and the field moves forward.”

The consortium model will allow for a variety of outreach activities, while furthering the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s mission to establish itself as a center for research and development of new theatrical works.

The initial three-year cycle of this partnership will culminate in the global premiere of “Malcolm X,” a new work by Marcus Gardley, in the spring of 2017 at ASU. Gardley is an award-winning playwright, whose work was commissioned by The Acting Company specifically for the launch of this partnership.

“Ian Belknap, our artistic director, chose this repertory to encourage faculty to examine the causes and repercussions of assassination from historical, political and philosophical perspectives,” said The Acting Company co-founder Margot Harley.

"This project represents an entire series of ideals for us: a partnership with one of the most important and respected touring theatre companies in the world, coupled with the world premiere of a culturally important work, mixed with this chance to prototype a new model for the relationship between professional theatre companies and research universities," said Jake Pinholster, Director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

The initiative is formally launching this month with the first year’s design and development phase.

Media Contact:
Katrina Montgomery