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Gary Dirks to lead LightWorks solar research initiative

September 24, 2009

Arizona State University has selected Gary Dirks as director of LightWorks, a new initiative to position ASU as a leader in solar-based energy and other light-inspired research. Dirks is the former president of BP Asia-Pacific and BP China.

In addition to directing LightWorks, Dirks has been  appointed the Julie Wrigley Chair of Sustainable Practices and a professor of practice in the School of Sustainability. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees for Sustainability at ASU.

LightWorks will capitalize on ASU’s unique strengths in renewable energy fields including artificial photosynthesis, biofuels and next-generation photovoltaics. LightWorks will eventually broaden to include other light-based projects, such as lasers for biomedical applications and energy-efficient lighting.

“Gary Dirks will help position Arizona nationally and globally as a leader in renewable energy and light-based research,” says ASU President Michael Crow. “Gary’s broad range of experience will help us meet President Obama’s challenge to lead a green revolution and develop clean sources of energy.”

Dirks received his doctorate in chemistry from ASU in 1980. He was the first doctoral student to work with Devens Gust, Thomas Moore and Ana Moore in ASU’s Center for the Study of Early Events in Photosynthesis (now the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis).

Dirks went on to work in the energy industry as a researcher, strategic planner and then ultimately, president of BP China and BP Asia-Pacific. In China, Dirks grew BP from an operation with fewer than 30 employees and no revenue to more than 1,300 employees and revenues of about $4 billion in 2008.

“What does that mean for ASU?” says R. F. “Rick” Shangraw, the vice president for research and economic affairs.

“It means we have somebody who respects and understands the academic enterprise, but also somebody who is very practically grounded in what works in the energy world. We have somebody who knows the energy environment not just nationally, but globally.”

“I feel privileged to have been selected,” Dirks says. “As I explored the opportunity to direct LightWorks, I was struck by the depth and breadth of capability at ASU to apply light to big social challenges. When you combine the capability that ASU has, the social need and the very strong support from President Crow and his team, it makes a very attractive opportunity for my next career.”

Dirks will provide the enhanced strategic focus needed to pursue major funding opportunities, including those in the competitive arena of federal stimulus grants. He also will facilitate collaborations with other universities, industry and government agencies. He says his initial focus is to communicate ASU’s strengths and capabilities through the vehicle of LightWorks and to connect ASU with major sponsors and partners.

Dirks already is fully engaged.

“I am working on two large energy projects now,” he says. “The first is a Department of Energy proposal to identify pathways to commercial production of liquid fuels from algae. We have more than 20 partners from across the country, and ASU is leading. The second project is in anticipation of congressional support for the Department of Energy Hubs program,” he says.

“It is incredibly important to bring resources into Arizona that will fund jobs and create an environment for growing new companies,” Shangraw says.

However, Shangraw adds that Dirks will not neglect the importance of basic research. 

“We do not have all the answers, particularly in terms of renewable energy,” he says. “We can’t simply take our existing science and convert it magically into commercial products. We still have to do a lot of basic research in this area to be successful in the long run.”  

Diane Boudreau,
(480) 965-7260
Office of Research and Economic Affairs