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Regents' Professor researches ways to improve on nature

February 18, 2011

This article is part of a series that looks at ASU's 2010 Regents' Professors and President's Professors.

In his spare time, Devens Gust fancies himself as a wood worker and furniture maker. He gets inspiration when he sees a special piece of wood and imagines what he can make out of it. Like a large piece of reddish bubinga wood he once found that he eventually fashioned into a Japanese style table.

“Using my hands. Figuring out what to do with it. Everything I like to do, has to do with those things,” Gust says of his pastime.

Much of what he does in his professional life as an educator and as a researcher is done in a similar vein. Seeing something formed by nature, learning how it works a particular way and then trying to make it better are hallmarks of his 35-plus years at Arizona State. As a physical organic chemist, Gust specifically casts a keen eye on the ways molecules naturally operate, delving into their mechanisms and trying to unlock their evolutionary secrets in his labs.

Gust, who was recently named a Regents’ professor, is one of the most cited researchers in the field of artificial photosynthesis, which studies the benchmark natural process that collects sunlight and turns it into power. To that end, in 2009 he was awarded a $14 million grant from the Department of Energy to set up a research center focused on the technical challenges of solar fuels. These fuels would not be drawn from the ground like fossil fuels but made synthetically, triggered by the use of solar energy.  The key for Gust is to find out how the molecules in photosynthesis, the ones he studies most often are called porphyrins, can collect solar energy and transfer it in an efficient manner to convert water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen. It requires a lot of molecular-level lab work as well as a deep understanding of the natural mechanisms of photosynthesis.

Understanding and then improving upon also is how he teaches his students in chemistry. It’s not only important to know science, he says, it is even more important to be creative in how you do science. In addition to undergraduate and graduate classes he teaches, Gust and long time ASU collaborators, Tom and Ana Moore consistently employ about 25 students in their labs on a wide range of projects. All of the students are learning from photosynthesis master craftsmen.

“It’s important to Arizona, and the country, to develop the talent that can do scientific research and creative technological thinking,” Gust says. “I want to do my part to encourage students to go into science and to develop their creativity and expertise. They are the next generation and they will inherit all of the problems that exist now. They are going to have to figure out how to solve them.”