Learning about LightWorks



 By Cheryl Hurd

At Arizona State University (ASU), light-inspired research extends far beyond solar panels, down to the tiniest single-celled microorganisms. Complex studies are underway that explore the use of light for energy. The research falls under the umbrella of LightWorks, a program with a comprehensive approach to solar energy. Gary Dirks, director of LightWorks, as well as the director of Algae Technology Public Private Partnership (ATP3) and the Global Institute of Sustainability, says it will take public understanding, societal change, supportive policies and the right business connections to maximize the benefits of the research being done.


Dirks is an energy man. The former president of BP Asia-Pacific and BP China came to ASU to direct the program that coordinates all of the light-based research being done throughout the campus. LightWorks refines the idea of light-based research into energy.  ”When we talk about solar in the context of LightWorks, we don’t just mean solar panels. There are a range of technologies, some for generating electrons and some for generating fuel. LightWorks is very much about solar-based energy but not simply photovoltaics.” The program includes photovoltaics, which utilizes electrons from sunlight, photovoltaic panels, artificial photosynthesis, and studies using algae and cyanobacteria. It is a comprehensive program that combines technology with social and economic components.


ASU is best known for its research on photovoltaics, solar cells and basic research on ultra-high efficiency of the cells. But the research being done at LightWorks also includes battery technology, micro grids and smart grids, power systems, transmission of electricity, systems modeling, and pricing modeling. There also is interest in concentrated solar thermal power, whereby the sun’s energy is concentrated on a receiver that gets very hot and uses the heat to generate power.

When it comes to renewable fuel, the tiniest organisms may hold some pretty big answers. ATP3 is establishing a national network of algae test beds and, as director of ATP3, Dirks is leading research efforts to explore how to combine carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to make fuel. The process of photosynthesis is used by plants, in this case algae, to pull CO2 out of the air and break it down into molecules, sugars, proteins and lipids. Researchers are using the bi-product of the algae to produce fuel. Depending on the harvesting methods, algae can produce a bio crude or bio diesel. Scientists are also studying cyanobacteria, an organism that can be genetically modified to excrete a molecule that converts to jet fuel.


Arizona can be a test case for how solar-based technologies evolve and are implemented into the future, Dirks says. “We have fantastic solar energy. We have a growing population. We have interesting and complex politics. So you have a lot of the elements you would want to have to think about both the technical and the social side of deployment of renewable solar-based energy.” While researchers continue to advance the technical side, efforts are being made on the social side of the equation as well. “The work we do needs to be use-inspired,” he says.

Energy efficiency is an important component to the work being done, Dirks says. “If we are going to deal with sustainability that revolves around energy you have to look at energy efficiency as the first challenge. You can’t just be looking at the technology pieces if we are going to maximize the impact and maximize our opportunities.”

Part of the plan for the future includes education, public outreach and a focus on energy policy law and governance, as well as commercial and economic development. Dirks has pulled together a team that includes experts in energy, government policy and business development


Dirks explains that the LightWorks team hopes to build relationships with commercial entities with the purpose of pulling insights and inventions out into the marketplace and, equally important, pushing into the research community the kinds of problems that business is facing. “It’s very important when you are doing research that is meant to be use-inspired that you understand the issues that are being faced in communities—and those communities are literally cities and towns but also the business community. It’s important to listen to them and find out what their challenges really are and figure out what we can do to help.”

So ASU’s LightWorks program, headed by Dirks, and supported by a team of experts, will continue to leverage ASU’s strengths to seek out energy solutions, advance research, innovation and entrepreneurship, and foster economic development.

Photo by Jolene Eder

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