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ASU awarded $3 million to research solar energy technologies, launch energy Ph.D. program

TEMPE, Ariz. 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 Solar Utilization Network (SUN) IGERT 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 Ph.D. 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 there is an Energy Ph.D. program, students will choose a Ph. D. in a traditional degree program within engineering, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, with a concentration in energy.

As part of the grant expectations, ASU will leverage existing partnerships in order bring under-represented minorities to the program, particularly Hispanics and Native Americans. 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 under-represented 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.

Contact: Sandra Leander
Arizona State University

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