Highlight all of ASU's renewable energy research.

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Solar's outlook just got a little bit brighter

ASU engineers' work brings solar panels step closer to cheaper, more accessible.
May 17, 2016

New inventions from ASU researchers may lead to cheaper, more efficient solar power

Companies making solar panels have faced the same choice for decades. Their sun-soaking panels could be efficient or cheap, but not both.

Time to start erasing that rule.

Researchers within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering have wedded two types of solar technologies, putting solar panels a step closer to being cheaper and more accessible.

Here’s the challenge researchers faced: solar panels made with silicon are expensive but more efficient than the cheaper, thin film solar cells, which are made with cadmium telluride.

The ASU team, led by electrical engineering professor Yong-Hang Zhang and assistant professor Zachary Holman, figured out how to add a little silicon to the thin film cells, combining the qualities of each type of panel.

Their invention broke an efficiency record for thin film cells and achieved the highest open-circuit voltage ever recorded for that type of cell. Their results were published this week in a paper in the journal Nature Energy.

Overcoming obstacles

Open-circuit voltage measures the potential for a solar cell to pump electricity around a circuit. High voltage is created when light is absorbed in a solar cell, exciting electrons by shaking them off their atoms. The electrons then build up on one side of the solar cell, like at the negative terminal of a battery.

ASU electrical engineering professor Yong-Hang Zhang

Engineering a solar cell with high voltage is challenging because the excited electrons can be lost within microseconds or even nanoseconds of sunlight hitting a solar cell. Thus, a goal of solar cell research is to extract the electricity before it dissipates, which is generally accomplished by adding conductive contacts to the top and bottom of a solar cell, according to Zhang (pictured left), who also is an associate dean for research in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“The traditional contacts are made through introducing impurities in the solar cell absorbing layer,” said Zhang, “which can degrade the device performance dramatically.”

Zhang, Holman and their research teams added a separate contact layer of low-cost amorphous silicon instead of an impurity. In doing so, they created a solar cell with a voltage of 1.1 volt, an unimaginable feat even one year ago.

“Essentially, we’ve created a solar cell that allows for the maximum number of electrons possible to build up before extracting them quickly and efficiently out the ‘smart’ contact,” Zhang said.

The cells not only reached high voltage but also a 17 percent efficiency, breaking a record of 15.2 percent for thin film solar cells. While other types of solar cells, such as silicon, boast a best efficiency rating of around 25 percent, such a dramatic improvement in thin film efficiency shows promise for widespread use.

Zhang’s next goal is 20 percent efficiency or more.

Impact on industry

Materials science doctoral student Calli Campbell fabricates solar cells.

Materials science doctoral student Calli Campbell uses a molecular beam epitaxy machine to fabricate the solar cell wafers in Yong-Hang Zhang’s lab. Photo courtesy of Yong-Hang Zhang/ASU

“The important thing is that this material system has been proven cost effective, but (until now) never efficient enough in terms of energy production to take over the solar market,” said Zhang. “Many times with a paper such as this, the findings are either scientifically interesting or commercially applicable, but not both. However, these results are.”

While silicon solar panels dominate the market, there are about 10 gigawatts — enough to power 2.5 million homes — of thin film solar panels in use worldwide today. First Solar in Tempe, Arizona, is the world’s largest manufacturer of thin-film solar cells.

“These latest results further confirm our long-standing conviction that CdTe (cadmium telluride) is an ideal material choice for photovoltaic application,” said Markus Gloeckler, vice president of advanced research at First Solar. “Reaching an open-circuit voltage of 1.1 volts is a milestone for the technology and provides confidence that thin-film CdTe has not reached its limits.”

The first step in an ongoing collaboration

The success grew out of an unanticipated alliance between Zhang and Holman’s separate teams.

ASU assistant professor Zachary Holman

“It’s a unique collaboration, and one that happened in the best way possible: through student initiative,” said Holman (pictured left). “One of Yong’s students reached out to one of my post-docs, and things took off from there.”

Though Zhang and his group initially conceived the underlying concept of these breakthrough solar cells, it took them nearly two years to improve the materials needed to fabricate them. They also called upon Holman’s expertise in silicon solar cells to marry two very different semiconductors to achieve these unique and efficient properties.

Zhang and Holman look to use their respective expertise to collaborate in the future as well.

“We’re exploring the possibility of developing a tandem solar cell,” Holman said, “basically two complimentary solar cells that would stack on top of one another, further boosting efficiency.”

The two teams plan to continue collaboration and are slated to present their recent results at the upcoming Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Photovoltaic Specialists Conference in Portland, Oregon, in June.

The research was mainly supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium (BAPVC), a collaboration between universities, industry and government dedicated to improving photovoltaic technology, jointly led by Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. Additional funding was supplied through Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST), one of the four National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers at the Fulton Schools at ASU.

Initial support for this research came from the Science Foundation Arizona in 2007, and following funding from the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Office of Scientific Research have paved the way to enabled many of these new ideas developed in the past 10 years, according to Zhang.

Top photo: A novel approach to a materials science challenge has birthed a record-breaking monocrystalline cadmium telluride solar cell, which boasts the highest voltage ever for its type of cell. Photo by Cheng-Ying Tsai/ASU

Pete Zrioka

Managing editor , Knowledge Enterprise


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ASU’s energy-systems expertise and Decision Theater will help shape Mexico’s power grid

ASU partners to help Mexico modernize its energy grid.
April 6, 2016

3-year project will explore interconnections with the U.S., the use of micro-grids, and ways to bring renewable energy into grid

Arizona State University’s leadership in energy systems is stretching beyond the border into Mexico. ASU was recently named a participant in a new grant that will help Mexico modernize its energy grid as well as make it more connected to the U.S.

The three-year, $26 million grant awarded to the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Tec de Monterrey) by Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and its Secretary of Energy, is designed to address the energy economy in Mexico. It will help build infrastructure, perform research and conduct educational activities, preparing Mexico for its energy future.

The grant was announced as part of the launching of the Binational Laboratory for Intelligent Management of Energy Sustainability and Technology Education at Tec de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus on April 6.

Mexico is in the midst of privatizing and updating its energy industry — fossil fuel and electrical generation industries — at a time when it is moving toward using more renewables. The grant will help the country explore its energy options and how it can connect with its neighbors.

ASU is receiving $1.5 million of the grant and will provide energy economic modeling expertise via the Decision Theater. In addition, ASU will apply its renowned expertise in power engineering to the project. The University of California, Berkeley is also involved in the project.

ASU’s power engineering group will help Mexican authorities look into updating its power grid to include interconnections between it and the U.S., explore the use of micro-grids, look for energy efficiencies and bring renewable-energy sources into the grid, said Stephen Goodnick, who will lead the ASU involvement in the project. Goodnick is a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, deputy director of ASU LightWorks and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

“These are the areas our power systems engineering people, who lead one of the top power systems research consortiums in the country, excel.”
— ASU professor Stephen Goodnick

Goodnick said the research portion of the project will focus on current issues with the energy infrastructure in Mexico.

“There is research being done collaboratively with ASU in cross-border transmission,” he said. “Right now, there are very few interconnections between the U.S. and Mexico, so the project will look at what the issues and technical problems are associated with cross-border transmission.”

Goodnick said another part of the project will be looking into the integration of renewable-energy technologies, such as solar and wind, into the grid system. Renewable-energy sources are variable energy sources that cannot be dispatched like fossil-fuel-based sources, so the renewable systems need energy storage capacity to provide a steady amount of power on demand.

The project also will look into development of micro-grids, which can be deployed in remote areas of the country where there presently isn’t transmission infrastructure.

“These are the areas our power systems engineering people, who lead one of the top power systems research consortiums in the country, excel,” Goodnick said of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center (PSERC), which is led by Vijay Vittal, the Ira A. Fulton chair of Electrical Engineering.

He added the project will bring a cohort of PhD students from Tec de Monterrey to ASU to work on the research projects in coordination with professors in the U.S. and Mexico.

Goodnick added the project will take advantage of a Decision Theater that has been built at Tec de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus and will draw on ASU expertise in energy markets modeling to help assess the costs of various energy scenarios.

Mexico’s Decision Theater will display models on the impact of various energy investments on socio-economic variables such as GDP, job creation and tax revenue. Stakeholders can then readily use the tools to better understand the implications for their decisions and collaborate toward a common future. Plans are to build additional Decision Theaters in Mexico as part of the project.

“Decision Theater will help develop scenarios on Mexico’s future like should they add more renewables, more nuclear, more natural-gas plants,” Goodnick said. “This is very important for Mexico because they have a lot of decisions they need to make in the short term.”

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


SenSIP striving to make solar energy systems more sustainable

March 28, 2016

Making photovoltaic cells more effective is critical to unleashing the potential of solar energy to become a major source of clean renewable power.

The goal is to produce cells capable of converting more captured sunlight into electricity. But even with recent advances in conversion efficiency, another challenge remains: developing complementary technologies for solar energy generating systems that will help enable photovoltaic cells to perform at their peak. Leaders of SenSIP research center project at ASU Rearch Park solar facility An array of photovoltaic modules built recently at the Macro Technology Works facility at the Arizona State University Research Park will be used to develop systems designed to boost the productivity and reliability of solar power generating stations. Pictured at the site are leading members of the project team. From left to right: Devarajan Srinivasan, Jeffery Frye, Andreas Spanias, and Cihan Tepedelenlioglu. Photo by: Nicholas Narducci/ASU Download Full Image

To maximize energy generation, arrays of photovoltaic modules must be equipped to react to situations that threaten to hinder their productivity.

That’s where sensor and signal information processing technologies promise to play a big role.

Arizona State University engineers Andreas Spanias and Cihan Tepedelenlioglu are working to automate monitoring and operation of solar energy facilities in ways that provide optimal efficiency.

Self-diagnosis and predesigned remedies

Spanias, a professor of electrical engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, is the founding director of the Sensor, Signal and Information Processing (SenSIP) research center. Tepedelenlioglu is an associate professor of electrical engineering in the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

They are devising a system that can act on its own to change the configurations of electrical connections within networks of photovoltaic modules. That ability will make generating facilities capable of quickly overcoming technical difficulties and maintaining operations with little loss of solar power conversion activity.

More than that, they want to integrate technologies into the system that will detect, diagnose and remedy electrical and mechanical glitches that would hamper a power station’s output.

“The idea is to come up with the theoretical foundations for producing algorithms for fault detection and repair, for realigning connections among arrays of solar panels,” Spanias explained,” and to then embed these algorithms into operating systems so that they are ready to respond to problems with predesigned solutions.

“We think we can show that this will increase power output by as much as five percent, which is a lot of power when you scale things up to the size of typical utility company operations,” he said.

A system of embedded autonomous controls

With $700,000 from two National Science Foundation grants — along with support from some of SenSIP’s key industry partners — the center is completing construction at the ASU Research Park in Tempe of an experimental facility with 104 photovoltaic modules equipped with prototype “smart” monitoring devices.

At the park’s Macro Technology Works, ASU researchers will test technologies and designs for a system they hope will make solar energy generating stations significantly more robust and sustainable.

Tepedelenlioglu is concentrating on enabling the system to be monitored and controlled remotely from just about anywhere.

“Maintaining solar panel arrays in isolated locations has traditionally been a limitation of solar energy facilities,” Tepedelenlioglu said. “This system would allow utility companies to monitor each individual module and to respond to problems from far away, eliminating the need for manual repairs with people on site.”

Accomplishing that will entail combining and integrating the capabilities of sensors, signal information processors and computer programming to embed an extensive communications network into the system.

Communications network for remote monitoring

Two SenSIP industry partners, Japan-based Energy Wireless and Tempe-based Poundra, are providing photovoltaic modules, along with sensor, transmitter, transceiver and signal devices for the experimental facility.

Sprint Communications installed a dedicated LTE system in SenSIP’s lab. This networking technology for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals will be used to provide additional mobile data links as the solar energy system monitoring project progresses.

The network will need to link internal communications between the devices that monitor, control and provide data on the facility’s electrical and mechanical components with the technologies that enable offsite supervision and transmit external communications and controls back to the system.

“Sensors on each and every solar panel will communicate to a central monitoring station to report what each panel is producing, and reveal if there is something keeping the facility from functioning at its full capacity,” Tepedelenlioglu said.

group standing in front of a solar panel

Students who are on the research team for the ASU Sensor, Signal and Information Processing research center project include (from left to right) electrical engineering doctoral students Henry Braun and Xue “Sophia” Zhang, electrical engineering undergraduate David Ramirez, biomedical science and genetics undergraduate Stefani Gjorcheska and electrical engineering doctoral student Jongmin Lee. Photographer: Nicholas Narducci/ASU

Overcoming technological hurdles

Through the communications matrix Tepedelenlioglu plans to develop, the monitoring data can be accessed wirelessly through a mobile phone or an Internet connection.

Designing and operating such a network can achieve technological progress that would also improve monitoring of other alternative energy facilities, as well as monitoring of infrastructure systems and environmental conditions.

“We want to demonstrate that sensor and signal processing has a major role to play in making solar energy advances, and that it can be adapted to help optimize the performance of many other types of similar facilities,” he said.

The project potentially offers much more than enhanced technical efficiency, Spanias said.

“With an advanced automated system that enables remote communications about the status of every facet of such a facility, and that detects, analyzes and fixes problems to maintain full production, you are going to be able to operate more economically,” Spanias said. “That helps overcome a big hurdle for solar energy.”

Boosting viability of solar energy systems

Raja Ayyanar, an ASU associate professor of electrical engineering, will aid the cause by helping to design and engineer inverter operation strategies to limit changes in power output due to system faults and periods when the photovoltaic array is shaded from sunlight, and to enable the facility to generate power in a form that is usable by the electrical grid.

Devarajan Srinivasan, an ASU alumnus, a faculty associate in the Fulton Schools of Engineering and one of the owners of Poundra, has been a key collaborator on the project since its beginning. He helped to design the experimental facility at the ASU Research Park.

Poundra works with energy industry clients to help them adapt new technologies and systems to improve the performance of their solar power generation facilities.

The company is hopeful the SenSIP project will produce technological advances “that improve not only the ability to monitor the overall health of the system in real time, but also to pinpoint where problems are arising and to predict its long-term performance over five to 10 years,” says Srinivasan, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at ASU.

That achievement would be a major boost to the viability of the solar power industry throughout the world, he said.

Contributions from industry collaborators

The facility’s “smart” monitoring electronics  — including sensors, relays and communications modules — were designed by SenSIP collaborators Shinji Koizumi, Shin Takada and Yoshitaka Morimoto, who are with the Japanese companies Energy Wireless and Applied Core Technologies, which have been involved with the project since 2012.

Morimoto says the concept for remote module-based monitoring was developed in response to the extensive damage done to nuclear power facilities when a massive tsunami hit Japan in 2011.  In the aftermath, the Japanese government made plans to develop remotely monitored and controlled solar energy farms to provide an alternative to nuclear power for the areas hit by the tsunami. The government gave Energy Wireless support to develop the sensor and electronics for the “smart” monitoring devices.

Macro Technology Works facilities director Jeffery Frye has been instrumental in paving the way for the building and implementation of the photovoltaic array. He was in charge of site logistics and construction coordination, as well as securing the necessary licensing and permits to operate the facility.

Frye expects to reap results from the system that could aid ASU in its quest to use solar energy to provide a greater percentage of the power needed for the university’s campuses.

solar panel

The experimental facility’s array of more than 100 photovoltaic modules will be equipped with advanced “smart” monitoring devices and other technologies to enable the system to detect, diagnose and remedy electrical and mechanical glitches that would hamper a solar power station’s output. Photographer: Nicholas Narducci/ASU

Potential breakthroughs attract interest

Spanias and Tepedelenlioglu are co-authors of a paper soon to be published in the research journal Sustainable Energy, Grids and Networks. Their article reports on procedures they have devised for optimizing the electrical configurations of photovoltaic arrays under a variety of operating conditions.

The paper will provide details on an array reconfiguration algorithm they say would enable a generating facility to reliably produce more power than facilities operating without their system for realigning electrical connections among photovoltaic modules.

SenSIP’s efforts have demonstrated sufficient promise to capture the interest of Sethuraman Panchanathan, ASU’s chief research and innovation officer and executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development (KED), well as William Petusky, the Associate Vice President of Science, Technology and Engineering at KED, and Yong-Hang Zhang, the associate dean of research in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. They, along with Stephen Phillips, director of the School of Electrical, Computing and Energy Engineering, have provided logistical and financial support for the 18-kilowatt solar energy monitoring facility.

Students benefiting from the project

ASU students are also benefiting from the project. Several engineering graduate students have roles as research assistants, and educational computer software will be developed for use in teaching undergraduates the basics of the science and engineering concepts involved in the project.

In addition to the two National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants, the NSF awarded SenSIP a Research Experience for Veterans supplement that has supported ASU undergraduate student and military veteran David Ramirez, who has already co-authored research paper and reports on solar monitoring project.

Outlook for broadening scope of efforts

Spanias and Tepedelenlioglu foresee possibilities of expanding their research endeavors in the area of green energy development, aided by SenSIP’s standing as a National Science Foundation Industry/University Collaborative Research Center that is making notable strides in its research mission.

Along with the companies contributing to the solar project, the center now counts among its primary industry partners NXP (formerly Freescale), Intel, Raytheon Missile Systems and Interactive Flow Studies, as well as associate members-at-large that include LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin, National Instruments, Qualcomm, General Dynamics, Paceco and Mitsui.

Those companies’ varied interests may lead to further support for SenSIP’s efforts to apply its sensor and signal information processing expertise to pursuing improvements in energy technologies and systems used in diverse industrial and commercial enterprises.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Powering up

March 17, 2016

ASU a partner in Red Rock solar power plant, one of the largest in Arizona, furthering the university’s role as a leader in sustainability

Construction workers this month are starting to turn several hundred acres of scrub desert near Red Rock, Arizona, into what will be gleaming fields of solar panels, one of the largest solar power plants in the state — with Arizona State University as a partner.

The project marks another milestone in ASU’s steep and aggressive rise in harnessing the sun’s power since 2004, when ASU first installed a Tempe campus solar array on top of a parking garage on Tyler Street.

Over a dozen years, ASU expanded its renewable-energy capacity multiple times over, debuting parking-lot “parasols,” innovative solar tracking systems, and solar panels that shade the fans at ballgames. ASU and its solar partners operate nearly 90 solar installations across university campuses, which total more than 24 MWdcMWdc stands for megawatts in the form of direct current., one of the largest on-campus university solar-energy portfolios in the nation.

In the Red Rock project, ASU is partnering with the power company APS and online-payment pioneer PayPal to build the plant. Through separate agreements with ASU and PayPal, APS will build, own and operate the plant. ASU and PayPal will purchase power from the plant.

As a result, this project will push the university past a new milestone of 50 MWdc of renewable-energy capacity. ASU will add an additional 150 percent of renewable energy (65,000 MWh, or megawatt hours) per year above and beyond its existing portfolio, furthering the university’s role as a recognized global leader in sustainability.

Solar panels atop Wells Fargo Arena.

Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe is just one of many ASU buildings and parking areas sporting solar panels. There are nearly 90 solar installations across the university.

The benefits, though, extend much further than ASU’s metropolitan campuses, explained Morgan R. Olsen, ASU executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer. He said the project:

• Brings new solar-energy capacity to Arizona.

• Provides local construction jobs to Arizona citizens.

• Reduces ASU’s net greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Part of our charter mission is to take responsibility for the social, economic and overall health of the community around us,” Olsen said. “This endeavor also moves us toward ASU's commitment to become climate neutral for all activities except transportation by 2025, and for all activities by 2035.”

ASU’s leadership in sustainability spans research, education and practice, as home to the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Sustainability, as well as the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar TechnologiesQESST, or the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center, is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Engineering Research Center, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

ASU’s acceleration in capturing the sun’s rays includes:

• A parking lot next to Sun Devil Stadium was equipped in 2011 with the first deployment of PowerParasols, an elevated solar system that also shades parked cars and creates event space.

• In 2013, ASU installed a solar-panel canopy over seating at Farrington Stadium, one of nine athletic facilities with solar panels, the most in the nation at the time.

• That same year, ASU’s Polytechnic campus debuted the first use of a new SunPower C7 Tracker technology that concentrates the sun’s power seven times and converts it to electricity.

The Red Rock plant is expected to be online at the end of the year.

Top photo courtesy of SunPower Corporation.


ASU professor’s ‘solar exposure’

Event draws a VIP crowd to an ASU engineer and his new technology

March 16, 2016

Taking part in a high-visibility event near the nation’s capital means you need to be on your toes. Just ask Zak Holman, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He was displaying a technology at the recent ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit near Washington, D.C., when Al Gore, the former vice president, walked up and asked him about the PVMirror Holman had invented.

“I was totally impressed with Al Gore’s technical knowledge,” Holman said of the encounter. “I made it about 15 seconds into my usual spiel before he interrupted me with a string of questions about the technology and its marketability.” ASU assistant professor Zak Holman explains his PVMirror invention to former Vice President Al Gore at the recent ARPA-E summit. Download Full Image

“He wanted to know if there was a thin film in PVMirrors that does the spectrum splitting (answer is yes), what it is made from (polymers), what fraction of the electricity is dispatchable (50 percent), what the projected efficiency and cost increases are compared to conventional concentrating solar thermal power systems (40 percent and 10 percent, respectively), and how long it would take to realize those projected values — all good questions,” Holman said.

Holman’s PVMirrors were part of a LightWorks display put on by Arizona State University for the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy) event. At the summit, 14 ASU professors, staff and students took part in the three-day event. They had the chance to show off their work to several people, including dignitaries.

Other energy technologies included in the ASU/LightWorks booth were Indium-Gallium-Nitride thermionic topping solar cells that provide energy on demand at low cost; an electrochemical CO2 capture-and-release device; a carbon capture device; and diamond power transistors enabled by phosphorous-doped diamond.

But Holman’s PVMirrors stole the show.

“Zak was certainly a rock star at the summit this year, his booth (part of the larger ASU LightWorks booth) was a featured booth for the VIP tours organized by ARPA-E,” said Steve Goodnick, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering and also an exhibitor at the event. “They also showed his project in a video between sessions at the plenary.”

Jim Yong Kim, head of the World Bank

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, tells ASU engineer Zak Holman that there will be a place in the world for his solar technology. Photo courtesy of Leon Meng

Holman explained his invention’s basic operation.

“PVMirrors are a technology intended to lower the cost and increase the value of solar energy,” Holman said. “Our approach to lowering the cost is to maximize the efficiency with which sunlight is converted to electricity. PVMirrors do this by splitting the solar spectrum, illuminating photovoltaic cells with only the colors of light that the cells ‘like’ (near-infrared), and using the rest of the colors (visible and infrared light) to generate heat, which can be converted to electricity at a later time using a steam turbine. This increases the overall efficiency of the system, and it enables solar energy at night.”

He added that he was inspired by another visitor to his booth.

“Jim Yong Kim (head of the World Bank) was very interested and supportive of the technology, and made a point to let me know that the world needed to keep pushing clean-energy technologies, and that there would be money to support them,” Holman said.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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The question of renewable energy on tribal lands

Understanding the culture is key to effecting energy change.
Connection to land and to tradition can alter Navajos' view of energy plans.
February 23, 2016

Low adoption rate in Navajo Nation due to cultural and societal differences, according to ASU professor's study

The Navajo Nation has one of the most valuable mineral resources among any Native American reservation in the United States, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Add renewable-energy sources to that: winds scudding across mesas and sunlight baking the high deserts on the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

Yet thousands live without power or water, in a place where 43 percent fall below the poverty line and unemployment stands at 42 percent, according to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development.

Why is renewable-energy adoption so low, especially for a tribe with the greatest renewable-energy potential in the United States?

A recent study spearheaded by an Arizona State University professor asked that question.

Cultural and societal differences are a huge part of the answer, according to “A Paradox of Plenty: Renewable Energy on Navajo Nation Lands,” published late last month in the journal Society and Natural Resources.

“There are 220,000 Navajo clustered in a few places like Kayenta, and then they’re just scattered all over the place, often without power or water,” said Martin Pasqualetti, lead author of the study and professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They have coal, but the whole place is bathed in sunlight, just like we are here. Why is it there’s so much poverty, unemployment, low education rates, and alcoholism on the reservation when they have one of the best natural resources in the world right there? What is the answer to that question? We started to answer that.”

Pasqualetti has a catchphrase he likes that sums up the problem: “Energy is a social issue with a technical component, rather than the other way around.”

“It’s not good enough to say ‘This is a good idea,’ ” he said. “You can fail, and one reason you can fail is you didn’t pay enough attention to the societal aspects of the problem.”

Understanding the culture is key, said Pasqualetti, who is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

Monument Valley

Making energy plans for the
Navajo Nation's future is
complicated by what has
happened in the past.

Photos by Enrico Nunziati
and (top) Cristiano Galbiati/

“You can’t just parachute all this renewable stuff in there and say, ‘There you go,’ ” he said. “That’s true in every culture, not just the Navajo.”

Long effects of colonization

Victor Begay, academic community liaison director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU, is from the Shiprock area of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. He said most of the challenges the study talked about fall under the umbrella of colonization. To Native people, colonization is yet another white man showing up with yet another thing to “improve” their lives.

“This goes back to the first relationships between Native and non-Native people,” Begay said. “The way that Native people approach these relationships is varied because the history has been so disjointed. It’s been conceived under biased notions. After a while you really begin to distrust people who have continually burned you and burned you and burned you. ...

“That’s what makes it so complex, because of everything that happened in the past. It influences what people think today, which a lot of times non-Native communities don’t understand. They think, ‘I’m here just for the betterment of the tribe.’ Well, 20 years ago some corporation said the same thing, so pardon me if I don’t really believe what you’re saying.”

Distrust among the Navajo has deep roots, ranging from Spanish friars waving crosses hundreds of years ago to uranium mining in the 1950s, which caused cancer in thousands of Navajo miners who were not told of the hazards. Billboards still dot the reservation urging sick former miners to apply for benefits.

“We’re going to clear out your aquifers, but we’re not going to tell you that,” Begay said. “We’re going pay you $50 a ton of uranium ore. All of those things just make you weary of interactions. ... It’s this mentality that has been so deeply ingrained in Native communities that even though there’s a certain degree of independence, autonomy, sovereignty, it’s hard for Native communities to see outside of that. I think a lot of it has to do with that.”

While renewable energy isn’t dirty, doesn’t pollute and exists in abundance, those aspects don’t necessarily mean the Navajo are going to jump on it, Pasqualetti said. He cited the Hopi — who live in the middle of the Navajo reservation — refusing a wind farm because it would have been located on a spiritual site. The Hopi also refused to renew a coal mining lease because water use was drawing down springs and seeps they had used for centuries.

“The energy company just didn’t get it,” Pasqualetti said.

Some communities on the Navajo reservation don’t have electricity or running water. While a non-Native might say that’s terrible in 2016, the people in those communities don’t necessarily want it, Begay said.

“From a Navajo perspective, some communities that for whatever reason don’t want it, whether it’s maintaining a particular lifestyle or it’s maintaining a particular connection to traditional world views, those utilities are not needed, not appropriate,” he said. “They can get on without them.”

An elderly woman living alone with her dogs and sheep out in the desert could potentially get a generator and solar panels, but with those things comes an electric bill, and a checking account to pay that electric bill. Those are things she has gotten along without her whole life, and she just doesn’t want any of the hassles. She’s doing fine.

“It’s that: ‘I’m doing fine,’ ” Begay said. “Those kinds of things might be needed if you live in town, but for out in a remote canyon, I’m doing all right. It’s all culturally based. It makes sense to that area. If you’re not from that area, it’s hard to understand, which I think the paper spoke to.”

Begay has seen cellphone-tower proposals get shot down because the site would have been on an area where a local family has grazed sheep for hundreds of years.

“It’s a connection to the land, a connection to tradition, that’s hard to understand,” he said.

Local governing chapters

While there may be a nearly universal distrust of non-Natives, there is not universal agreement on many things within the tribe, which did not have a central government until the 20th century and was traditionally a loose confederation of semi-nomadic clans. Navajo government has executive, legislative and judicial branches, but the nation is divided into 110 chapters that have enormous say over what happens locally.

“You find out they don’t do it because individuals may understand it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it without substantial consultation with all the people,” Pasqualetti said. “It’s not just the Navajo as a body of people, it’s the Navajo intratribal too. It’s one chapter to another.”

Imagine a chapter with solar power that has radios, lights at night, cellphone chargers and so on, Pasqualetti said. The chapter beside them doesn’t have any of that. They ask, “Why do you have it and we don’t?”

 “Well, you made it so difficult that we put it over here where people wanted it,” Pasqualetti said. “Now you have even worse conditions. You have to look at it from an anthropological or ethnographic entry point.”

“Energy is a social issue with a technical component, rather than the other way around. ... One reason you can fail is you didn’t pay enough attention to the societal aspects of the problem.”
— Martin Pasqualetti, professor in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Begay said the Navajo Nation is very locally based. From chapters down to the family level, they will sharply look at a proposed project, who’s approaching them, and the level of community support.

“The local governing units, families, chapters have a lot of say in what happens because of these historical ownership of lands,” he said.

Ownership doesn’t necessarily translate to holding a deed. People who have lived in a certain spot for centuries will have more sway than a legal landowner, for example.

“A lot of times these projects don’t get off the ground because of these cultural and social rights to the land,” Begay said. “If a community at a chapter house wants to create a partnership or engage in wind farms or whatnot, everybody has to agree. It has to be a hundred percent unanimous vote.”

Reticence to adopt renewable energy doesn’t completely fall at the feet of outside influences, Begay added.

“It seems that when Native communities take on projects on our own, it still seems like we approach these projects from a colonized perspective,” he said. “We might define success on non-Navajo measures. We may take the program planning based on non-Navajo criteria. Even though we have total control over a project, we still think like non-Natives. That’s a colonization component of all the things we do.”

Technology is not the problem, Pasqualetti said. Because the Navajo will make the jump to renewables without an overbearing existing energy infrastructure or the legacy cost of building transmission lines, they will lead the way in adoption.

“Talk to them first,” he said. “The Navajo and other tribes will be showing us the wave of the future, but you have to deal with the people who are there. … It’s an enormous opportunity to open the door to energy futures.”

There are absolutely challenges in the differing worldviews, Begay said,

“What happens, the way it happens, and how it happens are up on Navajo, and for most Native communities for that matter, so different from how it happens off reservations,” he said. “The differing jurisdictions, the different cultural and political aspects, the different financial and economic situations, all that influences how and why things get done on Navajo. It’s truly complex and complicated.”

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ASU students to make donated 2016 Camaro more environmentally friendly.
ASU is one of 16 universities revving up for EcoCAR competition.
Public is invited to see car, tour engineering garage on ASU Polytechnic campus.
January 13, 2016

ASU Polytechnic engineers to rebuild Camaro for EcoCAR competition

Update: See below for photos from Thursday's unveiling.

What happens to a brand-new sports car when you give it to engineering students?

They tear it apart and make it better.

The public is welcome at Arizona State University’s Thursday unveiling of a 2016 Camaro donated by General Motors for a national competition to develop it into a hybrid.

The EcoCAR 3 competition aims at developing the skills of the next generation of automotive engineers training across both engineering and business.

“The big thing is to get the upcoming automotive engineering students on the right track to developing more environmentally friendly vehicles,” said Laurie Ralston, communications faculty adviser on the team and a lecturer in the Graphic Information Technology program, part of the Polytechnic School in the Ira Fulton Schools of Engineering, on the ASU Polytechnic campus.

“GM likes the idea of the possibility of having a genius in the mix that will come up with something.”

The four-year competition between 16 universities is in its second year.

“The past year was more about what we were going to do when we got the car,” said Briana Del Bianco, team communications manager and a senior pursuing a bachelor’s in digital culture with a concentration in technological entrepreneurship.

The team’s 45 students worked on training and research on the car, and chose a powertrain. They decided to go with a parallel hybrid, which will run on electricity from batteries as well as ethanol fuel.

“We’re putting all new components, all new battery packs in the car,” Del Bianco said. “The outside will look the same, but the inside will be completely different.”

Photos from Thursday's unveiling; story continues after gallery.

The car on view at Thursday’s event won’t be intact for long. It needs to be ready for testing at GM’s Yuma Proving Ground.

“We actually have to have a running vehicle by May,” Del Bianco said. “We’ve really got to get cracking on it.”

The car doesn't have to be pretty by May, just functional and hitting its numbers for performance and emissions. The third year is when teams must have the cars consumer-acceptable.

The four-year competition is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and by General Motors. The aim is to build on the 26-year history of the DOE’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions by continuing to develop the next generation of engineers and scientists.

EcoCAR 3 puts industry-leading software tools and sophisticated powertrain components in the hands of students and pits them against a real-world training ground of engineering constraints and technical challenges.

The 45 students on the team come from business and engineering. There are seven sub-teams: mechanical, electrical, controls, systems modeling and simulation, innovation, project management and communications.

Members have to meet deadlines through all four years in areas of engineering, project management, and communications. The idea is to gain hands-on experience engineering, managing and creating communications content in an automotive industry-like setting.

The team is open to new members. Some course credit can be earned, depending on the student’s course of study.

EcoCAR 3 unveiling

What: View ASU’s brand-new 2016 Camaro donated by GM for the competition, never before revealed to the public. A tour of the garage where engineering students will be working on the car in the upcoming year will be provided; tour will include EcoCAR 3 facilities equipment, machinery and tools.

When: 3-4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Where: ASU Polytechnic campus, Simulation Building (7442 E. Tillman Ave., Mesa). Parking will be provided, with signs indicating exact location.

Admission: Free and open to the public.

Details: https://asuecocar3reveal.eventbrite.com.

Enhancing solar energy harvesting by minimizing heat loss

Liping Wang and his students are designing novel nano-engineering materials

December 28, 2015

The fast-depleting reserves of conventional energy sources and ever-changing environmental impacts have resulted in an urgent need for high-efficiency renewable energy sources and energy-saving materials.

Liping Wang, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is tackling this challenge head on through his Nano-Engineered Thermal Radiation Lab. Liping Wang (right), an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has earned a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for his work in novel nanomaterials. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

His research primarily aims to selectively control thermal radiation for energy applications by fundamentally understanding and exploring novel physical mechanisms in nanoscale radiative transport with nano-engineered materials or so-called metamaterials.

“One of my main focuses — and that of my team of graduate and undergraduate students — is on enhancing solar energy harvesting and conversion, like solar to heat by minimizing thermal radiation, which causes energy loss,” Wang said.

The goal, he said, is to design materials that are nearly 100 percent efficient in their absorption of the right spectrum of sunlight with close-to-zero emissivity in the infrared. Thermal loss, he explained, happens at the longer wavelengths so the goal is to achieve “spectral selectivity” with nano-engineered materials.

Wang and his students are developing materials that will perform at higher temperatures, up to 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit), at which more power can be potentially produced.

Wang, who has published more than 20 papers in peer-reviewed journals over the past three years at ASU, was this year granted a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award to advance his research, and that of his students.

The award is being used to engineer new materials with micro/nanoscale feature sizes comparable to or smaller than the wavelength of light. Wang’s lab is employing physics to improve the conversion efficiency of solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and solar thermophotovoltaic energy-harvesting applications.

“We are investigating the resonance behaviors that a nano-engineered material exhibits in response to external electromagnetic waves at visible, near-infrared and mid-infrared ranges for tailoring thermal radiation at will,” Wang said.

“Besides advancing the fundamental understanding in nanoscale radiative transfer, our home-built spectrometric platform enables the systematic study of radiative properties over a wide temperature range from -196 degrees Celsius to 1,000 degrees Celsius,” he said. “This will provide unperceived spectrometric information from millimeter down to micrometer and nanometer scale, while the novel nanostructures with exotic radiative properties will be demonstrated for various applications in energy harvesting, thermal management and optical data storage.”

Wang said what makes his lab distinct is that they can take their concepts all the way through the engineering process — they design and fabricate the materials, as well as develop the state-of-the-art instrumentation to characterize material properties, and thus optimize performance.

He said that although proving the science is important, it is also important to lower the cost of production if the materials are ever going to get to market.

“Right now, nanofabrication is very expensive — about $100 per hour, and it takes 24 hours to grow a 5- by 5-millimeter sample for testing,” he said. “We have to get that cost down to have a practical impact on solar systems.”

Wang’s CAREER program will lead to a wide range of civil, military, aerospace and industrial applications. The success of this project will ultimately result in wide applications of energy harvesting to convert solar energy to heat and power, as well as energy savings by radiative cooling or heating using "smart" coating materials.

Smart coatings, he explained, could be laminated on building roofs or embedded in exterior material and would ideally radiate heat to cool in the summer or absorb more to heat the building in winter.

“You accomplish this by controlling the optical properties of the coating with tunable materials,” Wang said. “This type of technology could be used for space application as radiation is the only way to do thermal control for spacecraft and satellites to maintain power.”

“A smart coating could even be used to create clothing that would help heat or cool the human body for maintaining personal comfort and health in different environments,” he said.

Wang joined the ASU faculty in 2012. He received his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on nanoscale radiative heat transfer from Georgia Institute of Technology. Wang is the lead principal investigator for ASU’s participation in the U.S.-Australia Solar Energy Collaboration on Micro Urban Solar Integrated Concentrator project, sponsored by Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Sharon Keeler

Quest to boost microalgae growth promises more sustainable energy

November 13, 2015

Arizona State University engineer Bruce Rittmann and physicist Klaus Lackner will lead a new research project to aid U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) efforts to boost production of a promising source for clean, renewable energy.

DOE has awarded ASU a three-year, $1 million grant to fund the Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Capture and Membrane Delivery project aimed at enabling more large-scale cultivation of microalgae. AzCATI algae ponds An ASU research team working to boost the growth of microalgae for use in fuels and other bio-based products will test techniques and technologies in algae cultivation ponds at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI). Located at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, AzCATI is part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. Photo courtesy of AzCATI/ASU Download Full Image

Microalgae are species of microscopic single-cell organisms, such as Spirulina and Chlorella, that exist in fresh water and sea environments and can be used to make biofuels and an array of consumer products, using only sunlight and CO2.

Besides renewable biofuel production, microalgae biomass is being used for a suite of products, ranging from food supplements to feed for mammals and fish to therapeutics and cosmetics.

“Our goal is to develop systems to make growing microalgae more affordable and sustainable and to produce it on scales large enough to meet growing demands in the United States and globally,” Rittmann said.

ASU’s collaborative spirit

He and Lackner are professors of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Rittmann is director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Lackner is director of ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions.

Their centers will join forces with researchers in the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) on atmospheric CO2 enrichment and delivery systems. AzCATI, located at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, is part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The project team will focus on two technologies: moisture swing sorption for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and membrane carbonation for delivering the CO2 more efficiently to microalgae.

Game-changing systems and techniques

“The current atmospheric levels of CO2 are too low to produce high rates of microalgae growth. We want to feed the microalgae with CO2 concentration significantly higher than in the atmosphere to enable the microalgae to grow much faster. My part of the project is about a novel way to deliver that additional CO2 at very high efficiency,” Rittmann said.

“Because atmospheric CO2 is everywhere, our goal of linking CO2 enrichment and delivery will enable microalgae technology to work in any sunny climate or environmental condition,” Lackner said.

man working in lab

Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU, is shown monitoring carbon dioxide and atmospheric conditions to optimize plant growth and test moisture swing sorption technology designed to boost microalgae production. Jessica Hochreiter/ASU.

Microalgae grows best in the sunny, warm climate of the Southwest, but need a source of concentrated CO2 to grow. Power plant emissions are a potential source of concentrated CO2, but there are not power plants near most good locations for growing microalgae. Capturing and delivering CO2 directly from air is a game changer, Rittmann and Lackner said, because it allows microalgae to grow anywhere to make fuels and valuable products.

Lackner’s part of the project involves a new technology called moisture swing sorption, which uses a special material that, when dry, selectively adsorbs CO2 out of the air to enrich atmospheric CO2.  When the material gets wet, it releases the CO2 into a small volume of air so that CO2 is at least 100 times more concentrated than it was in the ambient air.

Helping algae inhale carbon dixoide

Lackner’s approach will be augmented by another technology,  membrane carbonation, that provides a method to deliver more CO2 to microalgae much more efficiently than the conventional method. This method, called sparging, works much like the way bubbles carry oxygen into the water in a fish tank.

Rittmann’s membrane material has no pores, so bubbles are not formed. Only individual CO2 gas molecules can pass through the walls of the membrane by diffusion. CO2 is then rapidly dissolved in liquid so it can be “inhaled” by the algae.

Bubbles, on the other hand, rise rapidly and allow the CO2 to escape back into the atmosphere before it can be “inhaled” by the algae, which reduces efficiency and increases costs.

“We can get a much higher CO2-use efficiency by membrane carbonation.  This is important when we capture and concentrate the CO2, which has a cost,” Rittmann explains.

Bringing it all together

To help meet the ambitious goals and milestones of the project, the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Applied Structural Discovery (CASD) is also supporting the project through the efforts of researcher Justin Flory, who will serve as the technical project manager.

Flory will coordinate the team’s efforts to meet timelines and critical proof-of-concept deliverables, as well as contribute technical expertise in algal systems and photosynthesis.

“This project is a good example of how CASD is building on its core expertise and generating fundamental knowledge of photosynthesis to develop next-generation clean energy systems.” said director Petra Fromme.

See the project website for more information.

Media contacts:

Joe Kullman, joe.kullman@asu.edu
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Joseph Caspermeyer, joseph.caspermeyer@asu.edu
Biodesign Institute

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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US Navy awards ASU $1.5M for energy research, military engagement

October 29, 2015

Six Arizona State University energy-related research projects that will engage veterans or active-duty military are getting support from the Navy in the form of $1.5 million in seed grants over two years.

ASU’s LightWorks InitiativeASU LightWorks pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. It is a multidisciplinary effort to leverage ASU's unique strengths, particularly in renewable-energy fields including artificial photosynthesis, biofuels and next-generation photovoltaics. announced the funding through the Office of Naval Research’s Naval Enterprise Partnership Teaming with Universities for National Excellence (NEPTUNE) pilot program.

Each of the projects include a component that involves military members, with the goal of providing experience, skill training and resume building that will benefit them in their post-military careers.

There will also be program engagement designed to impact the ASU veteran community and — to the greatest extent possible — local bases with active-duty military personnel. ASU’s NEPTUNE program will work with the Pat Tillman Veterans Center to reach out to the more than 4,000 veterans enrolled at ASU, as well as military personnel from local bases.

Energy issues are both technology and people challenges, and the newly funded projects recognize that.

“People are an important part of alternative energy systems,” said Bill Brandt, director of strategic integration for ASU LightWorks and lead principal investigator of the projects. “Practical input from veterans with hands-on experience in military operations is critical to use-inspired energy innovation for the U.S. Navy.”

In exchange for participation in various meetings and workshops, veteran students will have the opportunity for independent-study credit hours, co-authorship of publications and other resume-building experiences. Participants will also build their career networks through corporate mentorship.

Engagement will include critical skills training in entrepreneurship, project management, leadership, technology to market and engineering problem solving.

The six NEPTUNE-funded research projects will contribute to new knowledge including training veterans to design and manage resilient energy systems. The projects are:

Self-organizing microgrids

The “grid” is the basic electric power infrastructure — power plants, transmission lines and power storage devices — by which our electricity is delivered. Microgrids can be disconnected from the grid, perhaps after a disaster or during extended military missions, and still provide electricity. This project will improve the way microgrids integrate with the grid and with each other to increase reliability and efficiency while lowering cost.

Remote sensing for smart renewable power

Renewable wind energy is generated only when the wind blows. The wind does not blow consistently, and it doesn’t always blow hardest when electricity demand is highest, so energy providers must turn to stored energy or backup generation. This project will use a cloud- and wind-detecting tool called 3D Scanning Doppler LIDAR to predict wind-energy generation, allowing energy providers to balance their sources for a more reliable supply.

Energy leadership informatics

For the military and many other organizations, including those in the energy sector, leadership makes decisions based on available data. If more data on how people interact with energy systems can be collected and assessed in a short time, this can improve the decision-making process. This project will deploy computational tools designed to improve operational performance and safety. Insights gained from the assessment will inform decisions and help promote institutional change.

Positive resilience case studies

Most energy infrastructure systems have plans to withstand and recover from disaster. When systems fail, there is deep scrutiny. We all learn from these failures. But we can also learn from positive outcomes where catastrophe was avoided. This project will assess positive case studies to define the characteristics of resilient systems, and will include such factors as organizational communication and consumer-driven response.

Monitoring underwater conditions

Optical communications technology uses light, rather than sound, to send and receive data. Traditional acoustic methods that use high-bandwidth radio frequencies cannot go underwater. This project will advance the use of optical communications technology to monitor underwater conditions. In the future, optical networks may replace underwater cables over high-risk sections of the sea floor and form sensing perimeters around ships and other structures.

Cyber threats to critical infrastructure

A sixth project capitalizes on the university’s Global Security Initiative and will focus on preventing and responding to cyberattacks on critical energy infrastructure.

“Many of ASU’s greatest points of pride are represented in this project — use-inspired research, fusing intellectual disciplines, enabling student success, veteran engagement and sustainability,” said Gary Dirks, director of  ASU LightWorks and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. “These are the strengths that ASU brings to the Navy project.”

ASU LightWorks is a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications