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In memoriam: Associate Research Professional Paul Liddell

April 13, 2021

Arizona State University employs many unsung heroes, like Paul Liddell, who devote their lives and careers not only to research, but to helping others. Liddell, an associate research professional in the School of Molecular Sciences, died in late February.

Liddell, a native of New Zealand, came to ASU for his graduate work in chemistry in the early 1980s, initially working with George Pettit. Later, in 1986, under the direction of Devens Gust, Liddell earned his PhD as a synthetic organic chemist specializing in photosynthetic systems with an emphasis on porphyrins and carotenoids, key photosynthetic compounds. Liddell was hired by the ASU Center for Early Events in Photosynthesis, where he continued to work with Gust, the Moore research group and many other researchers who sought out his expertise in synthetic chemistry. Paul Liddel's lab. Download Full Image

Throughout his career, Liddell contributed to many important scientific discoveries. He designed and prepared extremely complex multi-component molecules containing several chromophores, electron donors and/or acceptors, and photochromic switching units. These molecular constructs included artificial reaction centers that absorb light and store the resulting energy, and molecular antennas that can trap light and make it available for conversion to electrochemical energy.

“Paul was a synthetic powerhouse," Gust said. "His molecular preparations were studied by spectroscopists and electrochemists at ASU and in collaborating laboratories around the world.”

Among the many molecules prepared by Liddell were some that were examined collaboratively at ASU and Oxford University, which helped uncover the hitherto unknown mechanisms by which birds navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. While at ASU, Liddell coauthored approximately 100 publications, including several in Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences¸ and many in the Journal of the American Chemical Society

Throughout his career, Liddell willingly shared his expertise with others, mentoring a steady stream of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral associates in synthetic chemistry.

Postdoctoral associates who worked closely with Liddell observed, “He was always willing to help us with difficult procedures or designing synthetic alternatives related to our projects. He was always sharing his experiences as well as encouraging us with valuable discussions and kind words.”

“Paul Liddell showed me how chemists conduct themselves safely in laboratories," said John Crozier, ASU senior compliance officer. "I learned from Paul much about health and safety, particularly as it pertained to handling high risk chemicals.”

Ian Gould, interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences, observed that Liddell was very much appreciated as a colleague who was very friendly and generous with his time and expertise.

“Paul will be remembered not just for his hard work and outstanding scientific contributions, but as a kind, gentle and much-liked person who in his own low-profile way contributed much to the culture and scientific reputation to the School of Molecular Sciences," Gould said.

"Paul Liddell was a loyal and generous friend to his coworkers and at the same time was intensely private. The image of Paul’s busy lab in this article will be familiar to everyone who knew him and his work. Paul was a cherished member of the SMS family, and our friend; we will miss his companionship and invaluable expertise."
James Klemaszewski

Science writer, School of Molecular Sciences


ASU researcher Gary Moore exemplifies scientific leadership through energy research

March 17, 2021

Arizona State University Associate Professor Gary Moore and his research team seek to understand and advance the science of molecular materials for applications in transducing solar energy. The biological process of photosynthesis, which converts sunlight into chemical energy stored as molecular bonds, provides inspiration and design guidance for Moore and his research team.

“The materials developed in my group’s laboratories resemble components of biological systems that carry out analogous chemical processes,” said Moore, who is part of the School of Molecular Sciences. Associate Professor Gary Moore Download Full Image

Moore brings extensive research experience to ASU. Before being hired as an assistant professor at ASU, he performed research as a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working with the Obama-era Department of Energy Innovation Hub for Artificial Photosynthesis, the nation’s largest-ever research program dedicated to developing artificial solar-fuels generation.

At the School of Molecular Sciences, Moore is building on a rich history of research and accomplishment in the areas of natural and artificial photosynthesis and photochemistry. His work contributes to the efforts of the ASU Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis (formerly the Center for Study of Early Events in Photosynthesis) and more recently, the Center for Applied Structural Discovery.

“We seek to demonstrate innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology,” Moore said. “To deliver scientific discoveries and important scientific tools that will transform our understanding of nature and advance the energy, economic and national security of the United States.”

Moore has earned national recognition as an emerging leader in the field of energy materials science. He is a Department of Energy Early Career Awardee, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, a National Science Foundation CAREER Awardee, and was recognized as an “outstanding chemist with Native American heritage” by the National Science Foundation during the 2020 Celebration of Native American Heritage Month. He was also selected to give emerging junior faculty research talks at the 2018 Electron Donor Acceptor Gordon Research conference, the 2017 Photochemistry Gordon Research Conference, and the second International Solar Fuels Conference.  More recently, Moore co-organized the 2021 Western Photosynthesis Conference and the 2020 Inter-American Photochemical Society (I-APS) Conference.

“Gary is emerging as a real leader and a force in the field of photocatalysis for real-world applications,” said Ian Gould, School of Molecular Sciences interim director. “He is building hybrid, multifunctional nanoscale materials that combine multiple functions in most imaginative ways. He is extending the boundaries in several scientific areas critical to advancing technology, including interfacial chemistry, energy conversion chemistry and the catalysis of industrially important fuels and basic materials for energy and manufacturing.”

James Klemaszewski

Science writer, School of Molecular Sciences


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Narrative storytelling has power in driving clean energy revolution

January 29, 2021

ASU, American Resilience Project to premiere film documenting the closing of the Navajo Generating Station

In 2017, the Salt River Project utilities company announced it would be closing the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant located on the Navajo Nation near Page, Arizona, for good. The largest coal plant in the western U.S., the plant was in operation for more than four decades and employed some 750 — nearly all Native Americans, and many of whom lost their jobs when it closed.

Some in the nearby tribal communities were divided on the closing, with the economic impact weighed against the negative environmental effects of the plant.

On Feb. 4, in association with Arizona State University, the American Resilience Project, a nonprofit organization that uses storytelling to address social issues and inspire action, will premiere the second film in its “Current Revolution” series on energy transitions, titled “Nation in Transition,” which tells the story of the closing of the coal plant on the Navajo Nation.

Paul Hirt, ASU emeritus professor of history and sustainability, helped to produce the documentary with filmmaker Roger Sorkin.

“I spent years and years advocating for more renewable energy, and I thought that was enough,” Hirt said. “Now that the clean energy revolution has come faster than anybody expected, it's being driven by market forces rather than policy or the individuals it’s affecting. It's not enough anymore to just put solar panels on your roof. Now we have to say, ‘How do we bring the rest of society along and not let people fall through the cracks?’ We have to pay attention to the social impacts of that transition and make sure that we're bringing everybody along in a just and sustainable way.”

And if you’re not sure where you fit into the issue as an individual, Sorkin has the answer.

“One of the points we're trying to illustrate is the fact that no matter what you do in your life, you need energy,” he said. “We're all connected to the energy system. What happens when the lights go out? Everyone can relate to that feeling of reaching for the light switch and nothing happens. This isn't someone else's problem to solve. We all should have a vested interest in it.”

ASU Now had a conversation with Sorkin and Hirt in advance of the film’s virtual premiere this Thursday to hear more about what they had to say on the subject and how the power of narrative can help.

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

movie poster with hands holding electric wire and power transformer in the background

The American Resilience Project’s “Current Revolution” series explores the subject of energy transitions.

Question: This documentary is part of the American Resilience Project, the purpose of which is to harness the power of narrative to address societal issues and inspire action. Why is narrative such a powerful tool for that?

Sorkin: Story is such a powerful tool for organizing. I mean, you can trace it back to the origins of civilization, that ability to communicate and construct narratives for survival purposes and for social cohesion. Often I'll joke about the films (in the Current Revolution series) as white papers disguised as films, because they're really aiming for that same goal, which is to educate people in the change-making space, whether it’s on the policy level or the grassroots level, so that they know how to really tell a story about this stuff.

So I'm trying to help people become better communicators themselves with the films, and so I’ve got to tell a story that everyone can relate to in their daily lives. And that's really tough to do. But if we think about it in terms of basic human needs, everybody's got them – food, water, shelter, quality of life, health – these are basic needs. So it’s not about persuading somebody that solar power is better than wind power, or that wind is better than gas. It’s about showing people how these things affect you, how they can make your life better. So I see narrative as a really powerful tool to connect with people on a deeper, emotional level. Especially in this media ecosystem where we're just so overwhelmed with information coming at us all the time. I think that the more you can connect on that emotional level, and go a little deeper beyond just a soundbite or a tweet, maybe it lingers more; at least that's my hope.

Hirt: One of the key units at ASU that provided support for this film was Steven Beschloss’ Narrative Storytelling Initiative. Narratives are central to our comprehension of the world and our organizing of ourselves to act in the world. And so narrative is really at the heart and soul of everything that we're doing here in this film. I'm a historian, and historians work through narrative. We do research and we generate data, but we don't just use charts and graphs and work in the science and math arena. We actually are humanists who work in the human understanding and human communications arena.

And so every historian has to learn how to interpret the past in a way that can be delivered through an essay, through a story, through a narrative, in a way that helps people to understand the world through storytelling, through narrative. And so my whole professional career has been all about crafting narratives that help us to understand the past so that we can better understand how we got to where we are today, so that we can better shape the future that we're heading into.

Q: How do you decide which stories to tell?

Sorkin: For me, it always starts with — what are we going to do about the threat of climate change to the future of civilization? That's the banner headline for what I care about. So working backwards from there, I usually start by just talking with folks in the policy space, like Paul — I consider Paul to be one of those policy people, because he’s not just a historian, he was also on the board of directors for the Salt River Project — and I just ask them, “What do you see happening in this next legislative cycle?” and “What are the policy solutions that are going to give us the best bang for the buck when it comes to securing the future of our civilization?” Whether that’s greenhouse gas emissions, or CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) fuel standards, or any number of things, solar tax breaks; just really try to get down to that granular level of what all the policy people are working on and try to create some sort of connective tissue among that movement. 

Hirt: After we met while Roger was working on the first episode in the "Current Revolution" series, Roger asked me to sit on the advisory council (for the American Resilience Project). And one of the things that he asked me to think about was what future episodes might we create. What needs to be told about the renewable energy revolution? What other stories are really important? And something that I had come to feel strongly about was when in 2017 the Salt River Project announced that they were going to close the Navajo Generating Station. At that moment, there was an economic crisis in northeastern Arizona that was causing a lot of fear and disruption. The Navajo Nation was going to lose something like 40% of their government revenue and something like 400 good paying jobs. The coal mine was going to close down. The Hopi Tribe was very worried. And there was this big battle to try to keep the coal-fire power plant open. And the Navajo Nation itself fought for nearly two years to stop the plant from closing rather than immediately beginning to prepare for a transition to a future without coal. They spent all of their capital and all of their time and money trying to stop the plant from closing, which was kind of sad.

Being on the board of SRP at the time and also being an energy historian, I realized that transitions take time. No. 1, they require management. We can’t just make a big technological or social transition without some kind of social and political and economic management; otherwise, hundreds or thousands of people fall through the cracks, towns dry up and blow away, revenue disappears, livelihoods disappear. A lot of people are going to suffer in the process of this transformation from fossil fuel energy to clean energy. A lot of people are going to benefit, too; there's going to be companies making tons of money and growing jobs like weeds in a well-watered lawn, and a lot of new investment opportunities. But we can't just turn our sights away from the communities. Because it's the workers who are going to lose out during this transformation. I think we, as a society, engage better in evolution and social change and progress when we're actively engaged in managing it and providing incentives to go in the direction that we want to go in and providing assistance for the people who would otherwise be left behind.

So I started talking to Roger about how facilitating the clean energy revolution is going to require a really strong focus on how we do it in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable way, rather than just leaving it up to the market. And Roger saw all of the logic in that and was motivated by it. So it was probably in 2018 that we decided, all right, let's put together a strategic outline for the kind of narrative that we need to tell about this.

Q: Was there anything that happened over the course of filming that surprised either of you or changed your perspective on something?

Hirt: There's been a lot of talk about how the Navajo Nation has tremendous renewable energy resources, a lot of sun and a lot of wind, but very little has been developed. So there was this great opportunity for developing renewable energy, but nobody really engaging in doing it. And over the last couple of years, there’s been a rise in homegrown, Indigenous renewable energy companies coming out of the Navajo Nation itself, and Indigenous people becoming leaders in the development of renewable energy jobs and opportunities.

Two new companies have really come forward and made a lot of progress in establishing themselves at the forefront of renewable energy development in the Navajo Nation, and both of them were co-founded and directed by Indigenous people. One is called Native Renewables and they specialize in providing electricity to families who live off-grid that have no access to power lines and no access to electricity. Something like 40% of the people living in the Navajo Nation don't have electricity and running water. So Native Renewables was founded by two Navajo women, and their goal is to train Navajo people to become installers and maintainers of off-grid systems and try to get electricity to the families that don't have it and want it. On a significantly larger scale is a company called Navajo Power. One of the co-founders is Navajo, and the other co-founder met, fell in love with and married a Navajo woman, and they now live in Flagstaff and have property on the Navajo Nation. And their ambitions are phenomenal. They're looking at a gigawattA gigawatt is equal to one billion watts. So 1 gigawatt could power roughly 10 million light bulbs. The Hoover Dam is a 2 gigawatt facility. of solar installations over the next 10 years. And they have applied for PPA (power purchase agreement).

So they build a large-utility-scale solar array, and a utility company like SRP or APS, who are looking to buy renewable energy, will buy it via a PPA, which is a long-term 20 year lease purchase of the power itself. My guess is within this year, they'll probably have a couple of hundred megawatts of solar energy under construction on the Navajo Nation. And that's one of the reasons we're profiling people from those companies in the film, because we want to show that local leaders and local action can make a difference.

Q: What do you hope people get out of this film?

Sorkin: We really tried to distill a very complex, multifaceted situation into something more digestible. And we hope it will inspire other communities and give them the confidence to use this as a roadmap for their own transitions. The Navajo Nation has its own unique issues in terms of transition, but there are definitely lessons that are being learned there that can be applied to other communities. And the hope is that this story will be useful all around the world.

Hirt: We hope people will recognize that we have very large, complex problems and challenges to face, but they are not insurmountable. For many people, tackling climate change seems like a lost cause, and we want to change that narrative, because it paralyzes people and it's also not true. We have an incredible opportunity now that we didn't have 10 years ago, that we could only faintly see five years ago, that we can clearly see today. Most people don't realize that the solution to the climate crisis is within reach, but we need to come together to manage that transition in a way that works and brings us to a just and sustainable future. So there is hope.

Sorkin: Yeah. We're so over the “doom and gloom” environmental documentaries.

flyer for Current Revolution: Nation in Transition film premiere

Top photo: Tempe Town Lake, September 2017. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now

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New testing system could become the IoT of photovoltaics

December 4, 2020

Suns-Voc current-voltage testing adapted for systemwide use

A new system for measuring solar performance over the long term in scalable photovoltaic systems, developed by Arizona State University researchers, represents a breakthrough in the cost and longevity of interconnected power delivery.

“Inside the lab everything is controlled,” said Alexander Killam, an ASU electrical engineering doctoral student and graduate research associate.

“Our research has developed a way to use Suns-Voc to measure solar panels’ degradation once they are outdoors in the real world and affected by weather, temperature and humidity,” he said.

Current photovoltaic modules are rated to last 25 years at 80% efficiency. The goal is to expand that time frame to 50 years or longer.

“This system of monitoring will give photovoltaic manufacturers and big utility installations the kind of data necessary to adjust designs to increase efficiency and lifespans,” said Killam, the lead author of “Monitoring of Photovoltaic System Performance Using Outdoor Suns-Voc,” for Joule

For example, most techniques used to measure outdoor solar efficiency require you to disconnect from the power delivery mechanism. The new approach can automatically measure daily during sunrise and sunset without interfering with power delivery.

“When we were developing photovoltaics 20 years ago, panels were expensive,” said Stuart Bowden, an associate research professor who heads the silicon section of ASU’s Solar Power Laboratory. “Now they are cheap enough that we don’t have to worry about the cost of the panels. We are more interested in how they maintain their performance in different environments.

“A banker in Miami underwriting a photovoltaic system wants to know in dollars and cents how the system will perform in Miami and not in Phoenix, Arizona.” 

“The weather effects on photovoltaic systems in Arizona will be vastly different than those in Wisconsin or Louisiana,” said Joseph Karas, co-author and materials science doctoral graduate now at the National Renewable Energy Lab. “The ability to collect data from a variety of climates and locations will support the development of universally effective solar cells and systems.”

The research team was able to test its approach at ASU’s Research Park facility, where the Solar Lab is primarily solar-powered. For its next step, the lab is negotiating with a power plant in California that is looking to add a megawatt of silicon photovoltaics to its power profile.

The system, which can monitor reliability and lifespan remotely for larger, interconnected systems, will be a major breakthrough for the power industry.

“Most residential solar rooftop systems aren’t owned by the homeowner, they are owned by a utility company or broker with a vested interest in monitoring photovoltaic efficiency,” said André Augusto, head of Silicon Heterojunction Research at ASU’s Solar Power Laboratory and a co-author of the paper.

“Likewise, as developers of malls or even planned residential communities begin to incorporate solar power into their construction projects, the interest in monitoring at scale will increase,” Augusto said.

According to Bowden, it’s all about the data, especially when it can be monitored automatically and remotely — data for the bankers, data for developers, and data for the utility providers.

If Bill Gates’ smart city, planned about 30 miles from Phoenix in Buckeye, Arizona, uses the team’s measurement technology, “It could become the IoT of photovoltaics,” Bowden said.

This material is based upon work primarily supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy under NSF CA No. EEC-1041895. DOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2020.11.007

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Transforming energy policy through a passion for sustainability

November 30, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Going into college, Sukhmani Singh was passionate about saving the Earth, although she wasn’t planning on studying sustainability. Her main focus was politics. But all that changed when she joined ASU’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG).  Sukhmani Singh Sukhmani Singh. Download Full Image

“I joined as an intern my freshman year and was placed with the director of sustainability,” said Singh. “He was working on a club composting project, which encouraged different student organizations on campus to compost in exchange for extra funding. I absolutely loved everything he was doing. There's so much food waste at the end of events, it makes sense to compost and help the planet.”

The following semester, Singh became USG’s director of sustainability. She continued the composting program and also worked with student groups to make events zero-waste. She wanted to show as many students as possible that they have a part in sustainability. 

“It doesn’t have to be this drastic change that requires a lot of sacrifices; it’s just being a little bit more conscious. Promoting sustainability on campus was such an amazing experience. I knew that I didn't just want to do general politics anymore; I knew that my main focus was going to be environmental policy.”

Singh was able to combine her interests in government and sustainability at the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures, earning a Bachelor of Arts in sustainability with a track in policy and governance in sustainable systems. She chose that track because she was still dedicated to public policy and politics, and it coincided with the Bachelor of Arts in political science she was earning from the School of Politics and Global Studies. During one of her policy electives, Singh discovered an interest in energy policy. She wanted to study renewable energy and ways to transform the energy grid.

“If we're going to solve global climate change, then we have to start with where we get our energy from. We can't keep burning fossil fuels and relying on fracking natural gas.” 

What she’s learned about energy policy in the classroom has strengthened her work in her internship with Solar United Neighbors, helping groups of people go solar and working closely with legislators and corporation commission members to advocate good solar policy in Arizona. After graduation, Singh wants to continue studying energy policy and attend law school. As part of Barrett, The Honors College, she participated in Project Excellence and took an energy law and policy course at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

“Energy policy is complicated. I don't think you can make good energy policies without having a good understanding of the law that goes alongside it.”

Singh is grateful to the School of Sustainability for helping her find her path.

“I’ve loved everything about my college career. My sustainability professors were always willing to help and were so passionate about the field that it made it easy to learn. Everyone wants you to succeed because if we succeed, the planet succeeds. That’s the sentiment within the School of Sustainability.” 

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: Originally, I wasn’t planning on going to ASU. My goal was to go somewhere in Washington, D.C. I got into George Washington University, but financially it made more sense to stay in Arizona and go to a local university. I thought I was losing an opportunity by not studying politics in Washington, but I’m so glad that I chose to go to ASU. I really believe that if I didn't go to ASU, I wouldn't have ended up studying sustainability. And that's completely changed my career path. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The Policy and Governance in Sustainable Systems class transformed how I think about policymaking in the U.S., especially in regards to environmental policy. I also took an energy policy class before I even declared my sustainability major. That class solidified that this is what I really wanted to do. It made me committed to understanding more about our energy systems, something that I didn't even think about before. Studying energy policy at ASU set me on my path. I fell in love with it.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Senior Lecturer Milan Shrestha. He is my current thesis director and also taught the Policy and Governance in Sustainable Systems. His class was incredibly impactful to me, not only because he was so passionate about the subject matter, but he presented it in a way that made it accessible to everyone. His goal was to prove that policy matters, no matter what you're doing, and I appreciated that.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Try to learn something new every day. Sometimes our goal is just to memorize the material and pass the class, and I think that's unfortunate. I don't think I would have been as happy or successful if that had been my only goal. I wanted to succeed in the field and make connections with professors and other students. That has been the most impactful part, not just what grade I got in a class.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would work to make sure every single house in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas had solar panels.

Ashley Richards

Communications Specialist , School for the Future of Innovation in Society


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Justice for the land, justice for the people

November 19, 2020

ASU’s Project Humanities hosts Native panel to explore colonialism and environmental racism's effect on Indigenous communities

Many historians have stated that this country was founded on the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and the Earth.

Their land has been colonized for centuries. Resources such as water, minerals and wildlife were once honored and abundant, but now are polluted and scarce.

This history is why Native Americans have been consistent allies to environmental movements.

Arizona State University’s Project Humanities hosted a Nov. 17 livestream event titled “Environmental Justice: Indigenous Communities” to explore the intersection of justice for the Earth, justice for Indigenous peoples and how to mend the wounds of the past.

“If nothing else, the summer 2020 crisis in racial justice has forced conversation about systemic racism to name ‘white supremacy’ as the proverbial unnamed monster in the room,” said Neal A. Lester, professor of English and director of Project Humanities. “That many are looking at racial (in)justice in its myriad manifestations and permutations is exactly why this conversation about Indigenous communities and lands is imperative and beneficial. That we have such a panel of experts doing this work is truly an honor. Our desire is that coming together for this conversation will move us all to some action — great or small — to make us better and to make us think differently about our relationship with each other and with the stolen land upon which this very USA created itself.”

The event panel featured Alycia de Mesa, a senior sustainability scholar for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation; Melissa K. Nelson, professor of Indigenous sustainability in ASU’s School of Sustainability; Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, a grassroots organization focused on preserving and protecting the environment; Vanessa Nosie, employed with the San Carlos Apache Tribe Historic Preservation and Archeology Department as the NAGPRA project director and archeology aide; and her daughter, Naelyn Pike, an internationally renowned Indigenous rights and environmental leader and activist. Manuel Pino, a professor of sociology and coordinator of American Indian studies at Scottsdale Community College, served as the evening’s facilitator.  

Together, the panel examined the roots of environmental racism, colonialism, corporate mining and its impacts to Native lands, water diversion to fill the need of larger cities, climate change, demonstrating empathy for Native American tribes and how to become an ally to Indigenous peoples.

Screenshot of a virtual panel on Native environmental justice

Panelists at Project Humanities' Nov. 17 discussion on environmentalism and Indigenous communities include (top row, from left) sustainability instructor and PhD student Alycia de Mesa; San Carlos Apache preservationist Vanessa Nosie and her daughter, activist Naelyn Pike; Melissa Nelson, an ASU professor of Indigenous sustainability; (bottom row, from left) panel facilitator and Scottsdale Community College Professor Manuel Pino; and Navajo environmentalist Nicole Horseherder.

The group spent the first half of the program defining and tracing the roots of environmental racism. Pino, who hails from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, said he grew up next to a uranium mine that contaminated the environment and claimed the lives of a handful of his relatives. Pino added that those same mines were abandoned decades ago and were never reclaimed or cleaned up.

“All of these companies have abandoned and left us with our contaminated aboriginal homelands,” Pino said. “It not only had impacts to the environment, but to human health.”

Nelson said the roots of environmental racism trace back more than 500 years to explorer Christopher Columbus. She cited American Indian thinker Jack D. Forbes’ book "Columbus and the Other Cannibals" as a vital text.

“He (Forbes) talked about how when Columbus first came here, he brought this spirit of conquest and this spirit of colonialism. And, of course, it was fueled by the Vatican and the pope’s Doctrine of Discovery,” said Nelson, an Indigenous writer, editor and scholar-activist. “That basically said that these Indigenous lands and the millions of people who are here are pretty much invisible because they’re not Christian and weren’t tending to the land properly … so it goes way back and it has many faces.”

Horseherder, a Diné from Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona, said years of coal mining decimated their land and polluted their water.

“In all of the years that I had been growing up there, there were no more springs. And all of Black Mesa, we don’t have running rivers and springs, and we had springs all over the plateau,” Horseherder said. “The springs near my home was also gone. And that’s where my search began.”

Horseherder added that the Navajo Generating Station coal-fired power plant near the Arizona-Utah border shut down a year ago and was a major victory, but the work continues.

“One of the things we have to make sure of now is reclamation will occur under the federal government,” Horseherder said. “We as Indigenous people have to stay vigilant and (make sure it) happens to the standard that we need it to happen so that people can go back and live on those lands the way they used to.”

Nosie said environmental racism is much more than damage to Native land; it equates to cultural destruction and genocide.

“Our environment is a key source to our identity and who we are as Indigenous people,” said Nosie, who is a community organizer for her tribe. “Our cultural resources come from the Earth in order to conduct a lot of our resources. So when you talk about environmental racism, you’re talking about cultural destruction and genocide on our people.”

De Mesa, a fourth-generation Arizonan whose heritage is a mix of Mexican, Western Apache, Indigenous Mexican of Durango, Japanese and British/German, said it’s every non-Native’s duty to inform themselves about the history of these lands and become an ally. 

“We need to understand what is our environment, especially if you’re someone living in a big city,” de Mesa said. “Where does our water come from? Where does our energy come from? What are the backs that are being broken for you to enjoy Wi-Fi, electricity or anything else? We have to understand this historically, and we have to understand what’s happening in the present … investigate, ask questions, read. Obviously, empathy is a huge part of this.”

Pike said taking action by putting pressure on political leaders is not only effective, but every citizen’s right.

“Make your voice be heard because we are the people, we elect them to represent us so your voice needs to be heard,” said Pike, who co-leads (with her grandfather Wendsler Nosie Sr. and mother Vanessa Nosie) the nonprofit Apache Stronghold, which is fighting to stop a mining project that they say would desecrate Oak Flat, an Apache sacred site near the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. “Ask the question, ‘Who am I? Where do I come from?’ You’ll find a connection not just to yourself and your people, but it’ll also help you connect to what we’re trying to do.”

Pino said getting corporations and politicians to stop desecrating Native land has been a lifelong battle for him and others. It's something Pino said he may not see come to fruition during his lifetime, but he's not stopping no matter what.

“I started as a young man. Now I’m an old man,” Pino said. “And we’re still fighting.”

Project Humanities' suggested action items for the public

Top image courtesy of Project Humanities

Reporter , ASU News


New ASU engineering program supports a sustainable energy future

November 18, 2020

Innovation is transforming the energy industry as new technologies enhance power generation, storage and transmission. Alongside these improvements to components and systems, new human skills are required to convert the potential of scientific advances into commercial reality. 

Meeting this challenge is the purpose of a graduate program that began this fall in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. The master’s degree in modern energy production and sustainable use offers the multidisciplinary training necessary to realize a more sustainable energy future. A geothermal power station ASU's new master's degree program in modern energy production and sustainable use prepares engineers to expand the use of solar, wind, hydrological and other power sources, such as that harvested by this geothermal plant. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

“Significant indicators from the U.S Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Labor are pointing to a critical need for talent with broad understanding of energy-related industries and technologies,” said Terry Alford, professor of materials science and engineering and associate director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools. “We see this trajectory as an opportunity for a new graduate program in which our students receive training across a combination of disciplines that will make them very attractive for emerging careers.”

Alford led the effort to design the new 30-credit-hour degree over the past two and a half years. His goal is to equip students to “speak several different engineering languages” as opposed to the traditional focus on a single specialty.

“The future of energy is going to be so diverse,” Alford said. “We need people who can draw on chemical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering and more to create new ways to harvest energy from different sources, as well as to innovate in energy storage and energy transmission.”

Achieving that breadth includes offering two elective courses from ASU’s School of Sustainability. Alford says students have the flexibility to augment their technical expertise or to branch out and incorporate related social sciences such as energy policy or law.

“We expect this multifaceted approach will motivate students and enable our graduates to get out there in the field and hit the ground running,” he said.

Martin Flores started the new program this fall, after earning his bachelor’s degree in physics at ASU in May. His current coursework includes classes in wind energy, applied photovoltaics and sustainable energy policy.

Flores says his interest in the energy sector accelerated while completing the undergraduate Energy and Sustainability Certificate through the School of Sustainability alongside his primary major. When he saw the option to join the Fulton Schools’ new graduate program in modern energy production and sustainable use, he enthusiastically enrolled.

“I’ve actually been trying to recruit other students into the program,” Flores said. “The energy sector represents such an exciting opportunity right now. There are so many options. In fact, one of my primary motivations for pursuing this particular master’s degree is that I’m not yet certain where in the energy sector I want to proceed. I’m interested in research and engineering, but also the policy side of things. So, I look forward to a well-rounded experience that will allow me to choose from among many different directions.”

Flores says he reviewed master’s degree programs in energy at multiple universities, but he could not find anything like this new offering at ASU.

“On the one hand, that surprises me,” he said. “But the energy sector is evolving quickly. The field is not what it was even a few years ago. So, this kind of training is really important. It will yield excellent opportunities.”

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Algae engineering: A stepping stone to sustainable solutions

November 6, 2020

Among ways being explored to combine biology and engineering to remedy a range of growing global environmental problems, algae-based solutions look especially promising.

The encouraging viewpoint stems from progress in research that is revealing how the properties of algae can be harnessed to become the driving force for a slew of productive biotechnological pursuits.

Some of the research findings have been the result of efforts based at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation, or AzCATI, embedded in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Algae is an abundant and widely varied group of aquatic organisms capable of producing oxygen through photosynthesis and thereby harvesting energy from sunlight to grow and produce a range of biochemicals.

That capability and related characteristics can make algae a useful component in the development of advanced systems for effectively treating wastewater, producing cleaner energy and new biofuels, reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions and improving decontamination and pollution control techniques.

Engineers and scientists say the chemical components in algae can also strengthen materials used to build transportation systems and other public infrastructure — while sequestering carbon in the process to substantially boost the sustainability of both natural and built environments.

An essential testbed site for algae-related industries

group of students wearing green I love algae shirts

A group of recent and current student research assistants pose in their lab team T-shirts at the AzCATI facility. More than 150 ASU students have gotten valuable research experience at the Fulton Schools algae research center during its 10 years of operation, including those in degree programs in chemical engineering, human systems engineering, biochemistry and bioengineering, environmental resource management, sustainable food systems, natural resource ecology and astrophysics. Photo courtesy of AzCATI

AzCATI launched in 2010 with a multimillion-dollar investment from Science Foundation Arizona, a nonprofit with the mission of diversifying Arizona’s economy by aligning university research with the needs of industry.

The foundation’s support financed the development of several acres of algal growth ponds on ASU’s Polytechnic campus — located close to biochemical and molecular biology labs with resources available for use in AzCATI’s projects, particularly the cultivation of algal biomass for biofuels.

Before long, the center became one of the major testbeds for algae biotechnology-derived products, including nutraceuticals, biofuels, food and feed and high-value pharmaceuticals — all from algae biomass. This was possible due in large part to the Department of Energy-funded ATP3 consortium, which is designed to accelerate research and development of algae-based technologies.

“We’ve become basically the algae farmers for many public and private ventures that need to make advances in algae cultivation and productivity to reach their goals and our goals,” said John McGowen, AzCATI’s director of operations and an ASU sustainability scientist. “We collaborate with industry and academics to ‘road-test’ technology, and use data being generated by our testbed site to contribute to reducing technology risk and helping to propel the success of these enterprises.”­­­­­

The center now has longstanding working relationships with major U.S. research facilities, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

“Most of the national labs don’t have access to their own outdoor testing facilities, so they can come to us,” McGowen said. “Recently, through the DOE-funded DISCOVR consortium, we’ve achieved some of the highest outdoor algae cultivation productivity rates ever.”

Expanding applications of algae research and development

people looking at algae tanks

AzCATI’s leaders say many students and others who have worked at the center have gone on to use what they learned from the experience in their careers. Professor Peter Lammers (at right) is pictured in 2017 at the center’s testbed facilities with (left to right) Nick Csakan, a former AzCATI technician now working in a large California dairy converting manure to compressed natural gas to fuel buses; Thinesh Selvaratnam, a former postdoctoral researcher from Sri Lanka, now a professor at Lamar University in Texas; and Wonkun Park, a former postdoctoral researcher who is now a professor at Sangmyung University in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

AzCATI is part of ASU’s LightWorks, an accelerator that focuses on advancing solar energy generation and other sources of sustainable energy, fuels and related products. The center is also part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Through its connection to LightWorks and the school, AzCATI has been able to draw on a broad array of engineering and science resources and expertise, helping the center attract close to $70 million from public agencies, industry and foundations — as well as partnering with startups to obtain small business innovation grants — leading to significant expansion of AzCATI’s activities during its first decade.

Over that time, the use of algae in products has notably increased. Algae is now an ingredient in foods (for humans and animals), cosmetics, nutritional supplements like omega-3 oils, antioxidants, coloring agents, dyes for fabric, sunblock lotion, printing ink, flour and paper, among many other consumer products.

Beyond those uses, algae is a key ingredient in materials essential to a variety of industries. It’s often a key component of bioconcrete, the source of many bioplastics, and a growing source of agricultural biostimulants and fertilizers. Algae is used in aquaculture as feed for fish and shrimp, naturally imparting healthy antioxidants and omega-3 oils, along with appetizing colors, that don’t come from typical soymeal.

Looking at possibilities for expanding and improving the use of algae-based processes and technology to advance not only economic interests but also the greater societal good is the main thrust of research led by the three Fulton Schools faculty members on AzCATI’s leadership team. Each is contributing to innovation in what is called the Algae-Food/Energy/Water Nexus.

Research Professor Peter Lammers studies algae from acidic hot springs, applying his knowledge of molecular biology and environmental chemistry to create large-scale carbon-foundries that will fuel the future carbon economy.

Assistant Professor Taylor Weiss concentrates on making biochemical and biophysical advances, using synthetic biology and novel sensors to create and control the production of renewable biochemicals, sustainable agricultural additives, algal biofuels and products to improve human health.

Professor Shuguang Deng utilizes chemical engineering principles to develop adsorbents, catalysts and membranes for systems and technologies providing sustainable energy, chemicals, fuels and construction materials.

Attracting support from a range of public and commercial sources

hand holding algae

Algae has myriad uses in a wide variety of industrial processes, biofuel production, food and health supplements, bioplastics, fertilizers, pollution control, waste treatment and ecosystem repair. Work at AzCATI is focusing on enhancing those uses while exploring new and impactful applications of algae-based technologies and systems. Photo courtesy of AzCATI

Research by Fulton Schools colleagues outside of AzCATI meshes with the center’s goals and helps support its ongoing projects.

Associate Professor Elham Fini is using an additive derived from algae to boost the resilience and reduce the emissions of asphalt — which is especially important in hot and sunny Arizona.

Professors Bruce Rittman and Rolf Halden’s work focuses on finding more effective methods of protecting and restoring the health of ecosystems.

In his Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, Professor Klaus Lackner is developing carbon capture technology to help pull harmful greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Research capabilities in these and related areas over the years have brought AzCATI more than a dozen major projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, along with other projects supported by the Small Business Innovation Research programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health.

Funding has also come from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Central Arizona Project — the aqueduct and canal system that brings water to much of central and southern Arizona — as well as numerous companies such as Xylem, a major multinational innovator in water technology.

Research collaborators rely on AzCATI’s expertise and creativity

Longtime AzCATI collaborators in industry, government agencies and research universities say the center has played an essential role in their research and development success.

Matthew Posewitz, a professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, has been in algae research field for more than 20 years and has worked on algae biofuels and related projects with support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Department of Energy.  

“Some algae technology advances were pioneered at ASU dating back decades ago,” Posewitz said, “and the people at AzCATI continue to perform that level of work. They have been consistently at the forefront of algae testbed productivity. We have always been able to rely on the competence and creativity of the people there.” 

Philip Pienkos has that same level of confidence in AzCATI’s researchers and technicians.

“I have always trusted them to do outstanding work and I always will,” said the biologist and recently retired emeritus scientist with the National Renewable Energy Lab.

His assertion is based on collaborations he was involved in with AzCATI since its early days, finding its leadership especially motivated to make breakthroughs in algae research.

“Once we decided what it was going to take to accomplish what we wanted to do, we could count on them getting the work done,” Pienkos said.

He recalls the first project he worked on with AzCATI researchers being an especially rewarding accomplishment. Together they provided the basis for a concept of an algae-based biorefinery, which led to the development of algae-based polyurethane, a plastic material with a plethora of practical uses.

Today, Pienkos is in the process of getting his own startup venture off the ground as a platform for commercializing urethane technology.

Helping to reverse direction on our unsustainable path

woman posing next to algae tanks

Madison Clar is pictured overseeing the processing of algae through a photobioreactor at the AzCATI research facilities. Clar began working at the center as an undergraduate and after earning her bachelor’s degree in applied biological sciences was hired as a staff member. She recently moved on to to a position at a cancer research institution. Clar’s path follows that of many student research assistants whose work with AzCATI has been a springboard to career opportunities. Photo courtesy of AzCATI

From a big-picture perspective, Lammers and Weiss say, solutions to the environmental threats posed by the increasing amounts of detritus — decomposing waste and debris — that is created by modern civilization lie at the nexus of AzCATI’s endeavors and related ASU research projects.

For example, conventional activated sludge treatment of municipal wastewater leads directly to 24 billion tons of carbon emitted as carbon dioxide. The AzCATI team is researching ways of using algae to turn wastewater treatment into a renewable carbon foundry that would replace petroleum as the primary feedstock for industrial carbon commodities. 

AzCATI’s leaders say that engineering algae can help society change its unsustainable course. Algae-based technologies and systems could provide alternatives to wasteful and unsustainable practices that are causing environmental deterioration.

The researchers envision such an advance enabling development of effective and economical methods to clean up the damage that has already been done, while also spurring the development of new products — along with creating new jobs to better support communities and economies in an ever-growing world.

LightWorks Director Gary Dirks, who led the effort to establish AzCATI, says the center is at the leading edge of realizing the full potential of algae-based technology “to turn what is in those waste streams into valuable products.”

Such advances can contribute to creating “more sources of fuel, food, raw materials and chemical feedstocks to improve life in the future,” Dirks said. 

Ram Pendyala, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, shares that outlook. AzCATI’s work “will lead to transformative algae-based technologies that fuel our societies and clean our environments in the years ahead,” Pendyala said.

Top photo: Research at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation, or AzCATI, on Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus is laying groundwork for algae-based technologies and systems to provide cleaner fuels, efficient wastewater treatment, environmental restoration and renewable chemical feedstocks. The center is part of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Photo courtesy of AzCATI

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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A new age of energy dawns at ASU

September 17, 2020

A look at some of the major milestones in the history of solar energy development at the university

On April 25, 1954, Bell Labs announced its latest invention, a silicon solar cell, at a press conference in Murray Hill, New Jersey. A hush fell over the audience during a demonstration of the nation’s first solar panel, used to power a toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter.

The breakthrough made national media headlines, with The New York Times reporting that the silicon solar cell “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams — the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

The dream of harnessing the sun’s limitless energy took root 2,000 miles away at Arizona State University that year. Visionaries Farrington Daniels, a University of Wisconsin researcher, together with Arizona business owners Henry Sargent, Walter Bimson and Frank Snell, founded the new Association for Applied Solar Energy, a nonprofit scientific and educational organization headquartered at ASU. 

With an average of 300 sunny days per year, the Valley of the Sun proved to be the ideal location for advancing solar-powered energy.

Today, more than 160,000 solar installations in Arizona produce enough energy to power more than 768,000 homes. With prices falling 38% over the last five years, solar energy is becoming more cost effective and widespread. ASU’s solar program provides more than 50 MWdc equivalent solar-generating capacity, which contributed to the university reaching its goal of becoming carbon neutral in 2020, with zero greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations.

Here, we chronicle some of the major milestones in the history of solar energy development at ASU, revealing how the university has emerged as a national leader in the field. 

All photos from ASU Archive


First Solar Energy Symposium draws international leaders

Attendees at the first Solar Energy Symposium, held at ASU. 

The World Symposium on Applied Solar Energy features presentations by an international cast of thought leaders in an event that draws 130 delegates from 36 countries and spotlights solar’s issues and applications. The event is co-sponsored by the Association for Applied Solar Energy headquartered at ASU. 


ASU installs first solar furnace

ASU's first solar furnace 

A groundbreaking structure featured in Time and Life magazines, the solar furnace uses mirrors to concentrate light on a focal point, generating high heat used to make electricity.


Advancing research with one of the nation’s largest solar energy library collections

ASU’s Hayden Library houses one of the largest solar energy library collections in the country since 1972, including one-of-a-kind reference materials published by the International Solar Energy Society. 


Preparing the next generation of solar energy professionals

ASU's College of Architecture offers a master's degree in solar energy. 

ASU’s College of Architecture leads the nation as the first program to offer a master’s degree focused on solar applications. 


Fueling Arizona’s solar energy development

A cartoon depicting solar energy politics in Arizona.

Arizona Gov. Raul Hector Castro establishes the Arizona Solar Energy Research Commission, which empowers state institutions, businesses, universities and local governments to successfully obtain federal support for solar energy development.


ASU opens first solar demonstration facility

Solar energy demonstration facility at ASU. 

The university launches a facility that demonstrates active and passive solar energy conservation features and serves as a research center for scientists conducting solar strategies testing.


Building a more efficient solar energy cell

ASU's photovoltaic lab. 

ASU launches the Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory, where faculty, staff and students test and certify photovoltaic module reliability, durability and performance while forging key partnerships within the solar energy industry. 


ASU’s first solar system saves energy and provides shaded parking on Tempe campus

 ASU's solar facility at the Tyler Street parking garage.

ASU’s first solar power system is installed on top of the Tyler Street parking structure. The 34 kWdc system provides enough energy to power the entire structure’s lighting and shades 44 parking spaces.


Setting the state standard for generating solar and other renewable energy

Arizona Corporation Commissioner and ASU Professor Kristin Mayes helps co-author the Arizona Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff (REST), which requires utilities to generate 15% of their overall energy portfolio from renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, biogas and geothermal by 2025.

The Arizona Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff generated approximately $2 billion in economic benefits in the state through energy and water savings, reduced carbon emissions, decreased technology costs and increased renewable energy investment between 2008-18, according to an estimate by California-based consulting firm Strategen. 


Solar Power Laboratory boosts Arizona energy industry

ASU launches the Solar Power Laboratory to advance solar energy research, education and technology. Christiana Honsberg and Stuart Bowden, experts from one of the nation’s leading solar energy research programs, join ASU to lead the laboratory. Initial funding to create the lab comes from Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF), part of a voter-approved sales tax increase to support education in the state.

TUV Rheinland partners with ASU on new solar energy facility

TUV Rheinland Group joins forces with ASU to create TUV Rheinland PTL, the most comprehensive, sophisticated, state-of-the-art facility for testing and certification of solar energy equipment in the world. The powerful duo combines the stellar reputation, technological sophistication, management expertise and international reach of TUV Rheinland — a global leader in independent testing and assessment services — with ASU’s more than 50 years of research on solar energy and extensive solar testing abilities. 


ASU’s Energy Frontier Research Center opens

Devens Gust, Energy Frontier Research Center director

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the ASU center pursues advanced scientific research on solar energy conversion based on the principles of photosynthesis. The goal is to accelerate scientific advances needed to build a 21st-century energy economy. 


Engineering Research Center launches to accelerate solar energy development

Christiana Honsberg, Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies ERC director

ASU launches the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) ERC with $18.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. QESST provides a staging ground for major innovations in solar energy devices and systems, supported by ASU’s state-of-the-art Solar Power Lab. The center forges industry partnerships that accelerate commercialization of solar energy technologies and expands energy engineering education options. 

Downtown Phoenix and West campuses install first solar power systems

 A ribbon cutting at a new solar installation at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus.

ASU expands its solar capacity by installing a 77-kWdc system on the roof of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication building and 322 solar panels on the ASU West campus.  


Commanding the lead in solar energy

An ASU solar panel. 

ASU’s Tempe campus, with 74 solar systems, has the largest solar energy capacity of a single university nationwide. Collectively, photovoltaic and solar thermal installations on ASU’s four campuses generate 23.5 MWdc of energy as of 2012, avoiding 21,991 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year.


Numerous ASU solar innovations go to market

In 2017, QESST creates three new student- and alumni-based spinout companies (bringing the total to eight), one of which set a NREL-certified solar cell efficiency record. ASU’s solar patent portfolio expands from 18 to 22 provisional or full patents, while QESST alumni work as scientists, engineers and policymakers in 54 different technology firms, national labs and other energy related fields.


ASU solar engineers break solar cell record two years in a row

ASU electrical engineer Zachary Holman

ASU electrical engineer Zachary Holman.

Assistant Professor Zachary Holman and Assistant Research Professor Zhengshan “Jason” Yu in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering set a world record of 23.6% efficiency for a tandem solar cell stacked with perovskite and silicon in 2017. The number was a few percentage points shy of the theoretical efficiency limit for silicon solar cells alone.

A year later, the team improves upon the record by nearly two percentage points, to 25.4%, in a joint project with researchers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. The team predicts they’ll be nearing 30% tandem efficiency within a few years.

ASU radiant with solar cell research awards

ASU earns six prestigious Department of Energy awards, totaling nearly $5.7 million, ranking it first among university recipients of Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) awards to advance photovoltaic research and development in 2018. 

SETO funds early-stage research projects that advance both solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar-thermal power technologies. It also supports efforts that prepare the solar workforce for the industry’s future needs.


New tandem cell research enables greater returns from current energy infrastructure

Holman and members of his team discover how a microscopic alteration to industry-standard silicon wafers permits a significant enhancement to solar cell composition. The change can boost the efficiency of solar panels and lower the cost of energy production. The team’s findings are published in the science journal Joule.

ASU's solar energy advances are partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Lori Baker

Communications Specialist , Knowledge Enterprise

3 ASU professors named senior members of National Academy of Inventors

August 18, 2020

The National Academy of Inventors has named three Arizona State University faculty members to the August 2020 class of NAI senior members.

Senior member status within the international organization recognizes engineers, scientists and others whose work has produced significant innovations resulting in technologies with the potential to have widespread benefit to society. ASU sign Download Full Image

Professor Wim Vermaas and associate professors James Abbas and Cody Friesen join fellow NAI colleagues in the senior membership ranks who, along with their research accomplishments, have been successful in earning patents, acquiring licensing and commercializing technology they have developed.

Vermaas is on the faculty of ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Abbas and Friesen are faculty members in the ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“I’m incredibly proud to welcome Drs. Vermaas, Abbas and Friesen to the ranks of NAI Senior Membership,” said Neal Woodbury, interim executive vice president, chief science and technology officer, ASU Knowledge Enterprise. “This recognition demonstrates their collective commitment to advancing exceptional work in some of ASU’s most critical fields. They are each very deserving of this recognition, and I am pleased to see their achievements showcased in this prominent NAI cohort.”

“These rising stars also have proven success in patents, licensing and commercialization,” NAI President Paul R. Sanberg said. “We are grateful to our member institutions that support these elite inventors. It is their culture of creative exploration and discovery that ignites and inspires the innovators we recognize today.”

This 38 newest NAI senior members represent 24 research universities, governmental entities and nonprofit institutes around the world. They are named inventors on 397 issued U.S. patents.

Using cyanobacteria to power a carbon-neutral future

ASU Professor Wim Vermaas is a new NAI senior member

Vermaas is a Foundation Professor and associate director in the School of Life Sciences and a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He specializes in the molecular biology of photosynthetic microbes called cyanobacteria.

He holds six patents, which focus on using cyanobacteria for solar-powered production of biofuels, biopolymers and other useful compounds. Besides using solar energy, the bacteria also use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, giving this process an environmental benefit.

“By introducing genes from other organisms and by deleting or overexpressing genes from the cyanobacterium itself, we have modified cyanobacteria to make and excrete a variety of products, including fatty acids and their derivatives,” Vermaas said. “If one uses carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for making fatty acids that are later burned as biofuels, the overall process essentially is carbon-neutral, whereas if CO2 in the atmosphere can be converted into products like plastics that have a longer lifetime and are not burned, then in the short term that would lead to carbon removal from the atmosphere.”

Right now, fossil fuels are too cheap for this process to be cost-competitive, but Vermaas believes that may not be the case forever, and that environmental concerns could make it an even more attractive alternative.

“With increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is good to have the technology developed and ready to go,” he said.

Vermaas is also dedicated to helping young scientists learn how to patent their own innovations. He teaches a capstone class for undergraduates majoring in biotechnology and the molecular biosciences that covers intellectual property, patents, regulations and strategies in biotechnology. In addition, he has mentored a great number of students at ASU, some of whom have gone on to file disclosures and obtain patents in their own careers.

Making strides in neural rehabilitation

ASU Associate Professor James Abbas is a new NAI senior member

Abbas, who directs the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems, teaches biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Abbas leads work focusing on neural engineering applications in rehabilitation. His research group has developed technologies that interface with the nervous system to enable effective rehabilitation. Much of the work involves neural stimulation systems and interactive technologies for use in the clinic or at home.

His research has aided development of technology for use by people with spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease or amputations, and has led to rehabilitation technology startups and collaborations with international medical device manufacturers and research and development companies.

A recent research effort provides sensory feedback to people with amputation who use an upper-limb prosthesis. The work has produced a system that has received an Investigational Device Exemption from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is currently undergoing clinical trials. 

The system was developed in collaboration with Professor Ranu Jung at Florida International University, with support from the National Institutes of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, or NIBIB, part of the National Institutes of Health, and clinical trials have been supported by NIBIB, along with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and the Army Research Office.

In addition, a recently awarded grant from the Department of Defense is supporting a collaboration with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to provide technology to U.S. service members with amputations.

Abbas and his collaborators have been awarded six patents and have nine other patents or provisional patents filed. Several patents have been awarded for technology involved in these endeavors and other patents are pending.

“It is an honor to get this recognition from my highly accomplished peers for our contributions to the field of neural engineering,” Abbas said of his elevation to NAI senior member. “But this is especially meaningful because it also recognizes the work of ASU undergraduate biomedical engineering students I have mentored.”

Over the past few years, Abbas says, engineering capstone design projects by three groups of his students have produced intellectual property related to innovations now under consideration for patent protection.

Harvesting clean drinking water from air

Cody Friesen is a new National Academy of Inventors senior member

Cody Friesen, a materials science engineer who teaches in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools, directs research that has produced tech advances that are the foundations for his companies.

Zero Mass Water sprang from his efforts to produce renewable water and energy technologies that help fight climate change while providing valuable resources to underserved communities. One of his latest inventions is the SOURCE Hydropanel — a technology that uses solar energy to produce clean water by trapping water molecules from the air.

SOURCE Hydropanels have been deployed in more than 30 countries across six continents. The technology enables clean drinking water to be produced locally and affordably without being connected to larger infrastructure systems or requiring electricity.

Friesen is also known for creating a rechargeable zinc-air battery — for which he cofounded the startup Fluidic Energy to commercialize its design. The battery could potentially hold much more energy than conventional lithium-ion batteries at a much lower cost.

For this work, Friesen was named among the "TR35," the world’s leading innovators under age 35, by Technology Review magazine in 2009.

More recently, Friesen was awarded a $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Zero Mass Water venture. The award recognizes work in materials science leading to social, economic, and environmentally-sustaining inventions with worldwide impacts.

Friesen’s companies have attracted significant investors and partners, and Zero Mass Water continues to establish pilot projects in locales in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East where water is scarce.

With more than 100 pending patents and 42 granted patents so far in his career, he joins an impressive lineage of inventors as an NAI senior member.

Friesen has said he is dedicated to finding technological solutions that provide resources to address some of biggest challenges to social and economic advancement in underserved communities.

“As inventors, we have a responsibility to ensure our technology serves all of humanity,” Friesen said.

Mikala Kass contributed to this article.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering