August 17, 2012

$3M NSF award to launch alternative energy research, PhD program

Posted: August 17, 2012
ASU Professor Willem Vermaas
ASU School of Life Sciences professor Willem Vermaas is leading a transdisciplinary team that will develop a doctoral program in energy, as well as conduct research in four key areas including biological conversion, photovoltaics, solar thermal and sustainable policy.
Photo by: Vermillion Photo
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Researchers in professor Wim Vermaas' lab conduct studies on cyanobacterium in hopes of creating a living platform which uses the energy of the sun and photosynthesis to produce and excrete products such as octane fuel and bioplastics components.
Photo by: Larry Orr, Photosyn Center
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Solar panel installation on top of the Apache Parking Structure at ASU's Tempe C
Solar panels installed throughout ASU campuses are a visible indicator of the university's commitment to renewable energy.
Photo by: ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development
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A new effort at Arizona State University to educate and train students in renewable and solar energy is receiving backing by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Through its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the NSF is providing $3 million to ASU to help develop a doctoral program in energy and to equip students with the skills needed to find solutions to the energy challenges of the future by establishing the IGERT Solar Utilization Network (SUN) program. 

“ASU is taking a leadership role regarding research, education and policy issues in renewable energy utilization,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “We are working at the leading edge of transforming our society from a fossil-fuel-focused energy consumer to a sustainable, renewable-energy based consumer.”

The IGERT SUN program will focus on four key research areas including biological conversion, photovoltaics, solar thermal and sustainable policy. Over a period of five years, some 24 graduate students will complete in-depth core courses in these four SUN research concentrations, as well as conduct research and interact with local, national and international sustainable energy stakeholders.

The program will provide the groundwork necessary to create an energy doctoral program by 2016, offered through ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

“At ASU, we are strong in three important areas: biological energy conversion, photovoltaics and solar thermal energy conversion,” said Willem Vermaas, Foundation Professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and lead scientist in the program. “Because we have those three, we are in a unique position to say, ‘Now let’s train students so they are not only experts in those areas, but also so they can understand the pros and cons of the various ways of creating alternative energy.’ We also need to teach them about the social, environmental and economic contexts of emerging solar technologies so societal transformation can happen,” he added.

Until the doctoral program is established, students will choose a PhD in a traditional degree program within engineering, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, with a concentration in energy. 

ASU’s goal is to attain 25 percent minority participation, effectively doubling the current levels in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields at ASU by recruiting underrepresented minority students through its existing, extensive network of mentorship relationships with minority education programs. 

“We are trying to build on people’s strengths, and develop their thinking and their understanding of this complex issue, so they can make contributions that others haven’t,” said Vermaas. “We want to teach students to use this type of broad training and knowledge of energy issues in their own unique ways to help secure energy supplies and improve conservation in the coming decades.”

“This is exactly the kind of transdisciplinary program we are committed to,” said Gary Dirks, director of LightWorks. “With our combined efforts, we can solve our grand energy challenges.”

LightWorks is a university initiative that pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. This effort leverages the university’s strengths, particularly in renewable energy fields including artificial photosynthesis, biofuels, and next-generation photovoltaics.

The IGERT Solar Utilization Network program begins this fall semester.

ASU’s commitment to solar

Solar energy reaching the Earth is several orders of magnitude larger than human energy consumption, and conversion of a small part of solar energy to electricity or fuels could significantly help in sustainable energy generation.

Arizona State University is a logical place for solar energy research and education. Because of its long-standing emphasis on this area starting in the 1970s, the university established the Center for the Study of Early Events in Photosynthesis (now the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis) in 1988 and the Photovoltaics Test Laboratory in 1992.

Today, the university exceeds 15 megawatts (MW) of solar energy capacity, which is more than 20 percent of ASU’s peak load – and the most solar capacity of any university in the United States. ASU’s goal is to reach a university-wide total of 20 MW of solar energy capacity by 2014.

Sandy Leander, sandra.leander@asu.edu
480-965-9865
School of Life Sciences