The Business of Energy, Research and Innovation

I wanted to share some of the conversations that took place on another platform, Ecotwist. Last week, I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Gary Dirks (bio, PDF), who is the Director of Arizona State University’s initiative for light-inspired research, called Lightworks.

We talk about a whole range of issues from his work at ASU Lightworks, clean energy, research and innovation, to what he saw happening in Asia, where he spent 14 years as the head of BP Asia Pacific and China.


From the conversation, here is (transcript) of few topics that we touched:


Dewita: For our listeners give us the scope of the work at Lightworks?


Gary: I’d be happy to. LW is a university-wide initiatives that the President of the University asked me to lead when I retire from my position at BP. The idea that the President have in mind is that light being a very versatile phenomena of nature, would be important in many and the solutions to the many big problems the society faces going forward. Everything from telecommunications, and medicine through to the field that I’m most familiar with, and that is energy. And as you’re saying in your introduction, ASU been involved in light-related research across the broad range of field for many decades. So the idea behind LW is to draw together group of researchers in a very intradisciplinary way so we could take on some of the bigger challenges the society faces. In that regard we have on the technical side research going on in photovoltaics, concentrated solar thermal power. We do work on micro organism meaning photosythetic algae and photosythetic science of bacteria. We have research on artificial photosynthesis aimed at direct conversion of carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to fuel. And then we have a very active group of research that is also look at the business side of renewable energy and also policy and the social implications of renewable energy. So it’s a very broad portfolio.


Dewita: How many initiatives right now.. because you have so many things going on your Lightworks, how many initiatives Lightworks is focusing right now?


Gary: On the technical research side we focused on the next-generation photovoltaics. So devices get very high efficiency more than 30% of conversion efficiency. We also do work on algae, and algae is a photosynthetic micro-organism that is very efficient in converting sunlight into fuels, and we’re doing a lot of work on direct conversions of sunlight, meaning artificial photosynthetic. So on the technical side, we’re working on all of those areas. And it’s multiple teams in each case. So if you actually break it down we have several hundred researchers working on those areas.


Dewita: What stage are they in right now? I meant, how many years before become commercially available?


Gary: Well, it’s a very good question. Some of the researches is very basic, studying genes and how the genes end up affecting the way micro-organisms use sunlight to produce energy. Some of it is very practical. In fact, we have a spinoff company from our algae research, that is working on industrial scale system literally as we speak. They’re aiming to be a commercial producing commercial fuel in a couple of years. We have another spinoff company working on advance batteries and they’re in commercial production now. So it ranges from very basic research to things that are aiming to be on commercialization the next few years or so.


Dewita: You wrote something about “in America’s efforts to go green our Achilles’ Heel is transportation as cars, trucks, and buses represent 29% of U.S. Energy use.” How do you see the energy system in the U.S. and to change the habit going into renewable? There’s so much fighting moving into renewable energy..


Gary: It is complicated. There’s no question about that. And I would begin by saying that we have to view a transition into a more sustainable fuel as a journey. And the reason I say that is the current energy system is so large that it will take time for it to change. The fact that it is a journey does not mean we should wait to get started. In fact, we should start sooner rather than later, and I think there’s a number of things people can do now that will accelerate the pace for movement to more sustainable energy. The simplest thing that we can all do is use less. Look at the way we use our energy and ask the question.. ‘do I really need the lights on?’ ‘do I need that many lights?’ ‘could I combined trips in using my car?’ ‘am I using the most energy efficient car that can beat my lifestyle requirement?’ So I think the starting point is use less. Then with respect to newer form of energy, I really think public needs to say they want this. They need to say to their utility companies, “we like more electricity that comes from renewable resources.” They need to be saying to their elected representatives ‘support alternative to imported oil.’ Find ways for us to have options that we can use now. And options that will grow for us in the future. And the reason I put the emphasis on us, is because there are many things that we can do now, “if there was a political will to do it.” Now having said that I also believe that it’s important to continue the kind of research that we’ve been describing earlier so that technologies do improve…


Oh, there’s more to our conversation (than what you read here!). Check it out. You can listen to the full episode of “Solar Energy, Innovation and Research,” below (or you can download it, here).

Listen to internet radio with Dewita Soeharjono on Blog Talk Radio


FILED under: ecotwist, education.


Author: Dewita

Co-founder Ecotwist Labs.

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