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US Energy Secretary visits ASU for research briefing

May 18, 2012

Energy research at Arizona State University was the focus of a visit by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on May 15. Chu, who was in the Valley of the Sun to help launch the second phase of the Solar Phoenix program, stopped by the university’s Tempe campus to meet with ASU President Michael M. Crow, LightWorks director Gary Dirks and a number of scientists engaged in DOE funded research.

Chu is charged with helping implement President Obama's ambitious agenda to invest in clean energy, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, address the global climate crisis, and create millions of new jobs. 

Chu, a distinguished scientist and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, has devoted his recent scientific career to the search for new solutions to energy challenges. Previously, Chu was the director of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where he led the lab in pursuit of alternative and renewable energy technologies. Chu, a member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as several other academies around the world, has a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley.

While at ASU he talked briefly about the mission of the Department of Energy, highlighting ARPA-E, energy and science as “touch points.” But Chu’s main purpose in coming to ASU was to listen.

In describing ASU as a New American University, Crow explained that “we have set ourselves apart from other major public universities by having a differentiated set of design aspirations. For instance, use-inspired scholarship, valuing entrepreneurship, merging disciplines, and fueling things in a different kind of way. It’s a different approach.”

Also speaking at the gathering that was held in ASU’s newest Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building (ISTB4) was Dirks, the former president of BP Asia-Pacific and BP China. Dirks is director of LightWorks, an ASU initiative that capitalizes on the university’s strengths in solar energy and other light-inspired research, including the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. 

“We try to cover energy in an integrated way and the Department of Energy is an important supporter of ours,” said Dirks, who also is a distinguished sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability, a strategic research unit of ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

Among the scientists who briefed Chu on DOE-sponsored projects were Christiana Honsberg, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Cody Friesen, an associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.

Honsberg leads a national Engineering Research Center at ASU that is supported jointly by the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy to solve challenges to harnessing solar power in economically viable and sustainable ways. Known as QESST – Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies – the center focuses on identifying alternative energy sources that solar power can provide through photovoltaic technologies.

“The general approach of QESST is that photovoltaics can meet the terawatt challenge within the next decade or two, provided we have advances that sustain the growth. The central driving force is that there is absolutely fundamental new physics across the entire span of the different technologies,” said Honsberg.

Friesen leads a research team pursuing advances in battery technology and energy storage. Specifically, the research group is developing a new type of ultra-high-energy metal-air batteries that use advanced ionic liquids, and promise to provide low-cost, long-range power for all-electric and hybrid vehicles. In the long run, this advance could significantly reduce the need for the United States to import oil since more of the energy to power transportation could be drawn from the nation’s electrical grid.

The work being done by Friesen and his research team is an example of how ASU is “leveraging the government’s money and accelerating the movement of this technology,” according to Crow. 

Among the other ASU faculty members attending the briefing included Willem Vermaas, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis. Vermaas’ research team is working on a form of photosynthetic bacteria, called cyanobacteria, which are modified to over-produce and secrete fatty acids for biofuel feed stocks using just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide as inputs.

Also in attendance was Devens Gust, a Regents’ Professor in chemistry and biochemistry who oversees an Energy Frontier Research Center. The ASU center, one of 46 EFRCs, is pursuing advanced scientific research on solar energy conversion based on the principles of photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight to energy.

“Sustainability and renewable energy, advanced materials, flexible systems, and an arrangement of other areas we are concentrated in. We have strengths in research overall,” said Crow.

ASU media contact:
Sharon Keeler

Amelia Huggins

DOE media contact:
Jen Stutsman
202-586-3261 office | 240-364-4727 cell
U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs