School of Sustainability News

ASU's Biodesign Institute scientists use heat to refine renewable biofuel production

October 2, 2012

Perhaps inspired by Arizona’s blazing summers, Arizona State University scientists have developed a new method that relies on heat to improve the yield and lower the costs of high-energy biofuels production, making renewable energy production more of an everyday reality.

ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Roy Curtiss, a microbiologist who uses genetic engineering of bacteria to develop new vaccines, has adapted a similar approach to make better biofuel-producing cyanobacteria.

“We keep trying to reach ever deeper into our genetic bag of tricks and optimize bacterial metabolic engineering to develop an economically viable, truly green route for biofuel production,” said Roy Curtiss, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Centers for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology and Microbial Genetic Engineering as well as professor in the School of Life Sciences.

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ASU engineer will use Fulbright award to share expertise in renewable energy

October 2, 2012

Arizona State University chemical engineer Jean Andino will share her expertise in renewable energy development with research colleagues and students in Panama with the support of a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Scholar award.

Andino is on the faculty of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.  Her teaching and research focuses on atmospheric chemistry, chemical kinetics, and air pollution sensing and control. In the energy area, her work at ASU involves seeking ways to convert carbon dioxide into fuels.

Andino plans to spend a semester at Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá  with the Centro de Investigación e Innovación Eléctrica, Mecánica y de la Industria, as well as with the Facultad de Ingeniería Mecánica,  where she will consult on air quality and energy issues, give seminars and teach a short course.

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Extreme climate change linked to early animal evolution

October 2, 2012

An international team of scientists has uncovered new evidence linking early animal evolution to extreme climate change.

A dramatic rise in atmospheric oxygen levels has long been speculated as the trigger for early animal evolution. In the Sept. 27 issue of the journal Nature, researchers for the first time offer evidence of a causal link between trends in early biological diversity and shifts in Earth system processes.

The fossil record shows a marked increase in animal and algae fossils roughly 635 million years ago. Researchers, including sustainability scientist Ariel Anbar, believe that oceanic oxygen levels spiked suddenly at this time, in the wake of a severe glaciation, reaching the level necessary to allow animals to flourish. The new evidence pre-dates previous estimates of a life-sustaining oxygenation event by more than 50 million years.

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Business + University: Tomorrow’s Jobs Require Sustainability

Thought Leader Series

September 27, 2012

A Thought Leader Series Piece

By Hunter Lovins

Note: Hunter Lovins is a past Wrigley Lecture Series speaker at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and was a keynote speaker at the inaugural conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education held at ASU in 2006.

Business is probably the only institution on the planet that is nimble and well-managed enough to respond to the global sustainability crises facing humanity. Such challenges as the impacts of climate change, soaring resource prices, poverty, and loss of biodiversity are threats, but are also opportunities. The businesses that successfully respond will be big winners in the marketplace.

Business sustainability leaders already outperform their less sustainable peers. Over 40 studies from all the major management consulting houses, as well as from academic journals such as Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Review, show that the companies that are sustainability leaders have higher and faster growing stock value, better financial results, lower risks, and more engaged workforces than other companies.

Despite all this, we’re losing. The international Convention on Biological Diversity report, Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, highlights a sobering loss of species and habitats among the world’s ecosystems. Threats like the acidification of the oceans could, worst case, end life as we know it on earth. This has happened several times before on our planet with up to 90 percent of species going extinct. Meanwhile, both the International Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warn that unless global leaders implement more sustainable practices immediately we will, perhaps as early as 2017, lock in an unsurvivable amount of global warming.

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Study of 'forest killer' plant explores our vulnerability to rapid environmental change

September 26, 2012

It’s called mile-a-minute weed or “forest killer.”Mikania micrantha is an exotic, invasive species that spreads quickly, covering crops, smothering trees and rapidly altering the environment.

Researchers at Arizona State University are spearheading a four-year research project that will explore what factors cause people and the environment to be vulnerable to rapid environmental change, such as an invasion by Mikania.

Study findings likely will serve as a harbinger of the future as humans increasingly experience abrupt, extreme conditions associated with climate change, said Sharon J. Hall, the study’s co-principal investigator, sustainability scientist, and ASU School of Life Sciences associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“There are many communities that have to deal with and adapt to rapid change. Mikania is just one example,” Hall said. “We’re looking at how social and ecological forces in communities make them more resistant or vulnerable to rapid environmental change.”

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Sustainability Scientists research morality in food choices

September 26, 2012

Several researchers at Arizona State University are examining the ethical aspects of food production and consumption. They are helping consumers navigate the maze of moral choices involved in filling their plates and their bellies. And they are finding that being morally mindful can lead to better nutrition, as well.

Where does a chicken or an avocado start its life before making its way to the grocery store? Joan McGregor studies food production and the ethical concerns it raises. One of these, of course, is environmental sustainability.

“We all talk about water, we talk about energy, but we sort of forget that food is a huge consumer of resources,” says McGregor, who teaches philosophy in ASU’s School of Philosophical, Historical, and Religious Studies and is a sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Researchers hope that targeting people’s morals rather than their rational thoughts will be an effective way to promote healthy and ethical choices.

“We need to connect people’s values to their food choices,” McGregor says. “That means people need to have access to certain kinds of information that ties food decisions to values about the environment, animals and social justice.”

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Sustainability scientist publishes new textbook: "Understanding Sustainable Cities"

September 21, 2012

David Pijawka, sustainability scientist and professor in the School of Sustainability and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and doctoral student Martin Gromulat have published a new textbook for undergraduate students exploring sustainable cities. The book, “Understanding Sustainable Cities: Concepts, Cases, and Solutions,” is the culmination of Pijawka’s experience teaching Sustainable Cities, an undergraduate course in the School of Sustainability.

“The key goal of this book is to help other colleges and universities introduce notions of sustainability and sustainable development to their students,” says Pijawka.

ASU President Michael Crow, a strong supporter and initiator of university sustainability, wrote the forward. The introductory chapters are written by Pijawka and Gromulat. The remaining chapters are authored by expert university faculty and affiliates. The book covers everything from water to transportation.

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Green Events: Give your guests a reason to be sustainable

September 19, 2012

Before the meal was selected or a table was set at the annual ASU Staff Appreciation Barbeque last spring, organizers decided a “green event” was the way to go. The ASU Staff Council wanted to reduce waste destined for the landfill and educate staffers about ASU’s sustainability practices.

Event planners reached out to Betty Lombardo, who facilitates Green Events at ASU and is manager of University Sustainability Practices.

“Betty gave us ideas, suggestions and processes that we had not previously considered regarding how to ‘green’ an event,” said Patricia Rosciano, co-chair of the Staff Appreciation Barbeque and assistant to the vice president of ASU’s Office of Human Resources.

According to Lombardo, Green Events benefit the university in numerous ways, including: the reduction of negative environmental impacts; expressing ASU’s sustainability values; being a leader for positive change; and building sustainability awareness among stakeholders.

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Sustainability Scientist investigates inaccurate hottest temperature record

September 18, 2012

An international team of meteorologists recently finished an in-depth investigation of what had been the world-record temperature extreme of 58 degrees Celsius (136.4 F), recorded on Sept. 13, 1922, in El Azizia, Libya. The group found that there were enough questions surrounding the measurement and how it was made that it was probably inaccurate, overturning the record 90 years to the day it was recorded.

“We found systematic errors in the 1922 reading,” said Randy Cerveny, an ASU President’s Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “This change to the record books required significant sleuthing and a lot of forensic records work,” added Cerveny, who also is the Rapporteur of Climate and Weather Extremes for the WMO, the person responsible for keeping worldwide weather records.

Officially, the “new” world record temperature extreme is 56.7 C (134 F), recorded on July 10, 1913, at Greenland Ranch in Death Valley, Calif.

“In the heart of every meteorologist and climatologist beats the soul of a detective,” said Cerveny. In this case the weather detectives had to work around an unfolding revolution in Libya.

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ASU to lead first-ever national algae testbed with grant from DOE

September 18, 2012

The U.S. Department of Energy has selected the Arizona State University led Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) for a $15M award for its Advancements in Sustainable Algal Production opportunity.

“This algae national testbed will provide high quality data and a network of sites that will speed the pace of innovation,” said Gary Dirks, director of ATP3 and ASU LightWorks, the university initiative that pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. “The network will support companies and research institutions as they work to meet the nation’s energy challenges.”

ATP3 will function as a testing facility for the algal research community supporting the operation of existing outdoor algae cultivation systems and allowing researchers access to real-world conditions for algal biomass production for biofuel.

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Mayors to discuss sustainability challenges facing cities

September 17, 2012

From left to right: Greg Stanton, Phoenix mayor; Scott Smith, Mesa mayor; and Mark Mitchell, Tempe mayor.

September 25, 2012
6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix leaders asked to share their vision for sustainable future

What are Arizona’s desert cities doing to become more livable – more sustainable – in planning for transportation, housing, energy, water usage and population growth?

The mayors of three of Arizona’s largest cities – Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe – will address sustainability challenges and opportunities for their cities during a panel discussion from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Sept. 25, at the Mesa Arts Center. They will be asked to describe their city’s unique challenges and explain their vision for a sustainable future.

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NSF funds to boost sustainability research, education

September 12, 2012

John-Sabo2As population in the Sunbelt grows, water supplies are spread thin. How does this affect native species? And how does this affect the people who move here?

Arizona State University has been awarded a four-year, $505,823 grant from the National Science Foundation to study freshwater sustainability in the face of population growth and climate change. North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia are also part of the project.

The research will take place across the Sunbelt, the area that spans the lower U.S. states including all of Arizona. These states are characterized by extended summers with brief and mild winters. This type of climate, called warm-temperate, is especially critical to studying water supplies.

“Cities across the sunbelt are growing rapidly,” says John Sabo, director of research development at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and lead scientist on the study. “We will need water for this growth, and allocating that water to humans may have consequences for native biodiversity, especially if supply is diminished by climate change.”

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Urban wetland fosters an early appreciation for science, nature

September 11, 2012

For the past few years, ASU has been conducting studies at the Tres Rios wetlands, a facility constructed by the City of Phoenix as an alternative to traditional wastewater treatment. Researchers want to know how successfully these man-made wetlands provide ecosystem services like wildlife habitat and water treatment in an arid landscape.

One goal of this research initiative is providing environmental education to high school and college students.

“In this project we’ve got students doing both lab work and field work, and that is pretty unusual,” says Dan Childers, the director for ASU’s Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research and principal investigator.

In June, Ariah Evans, Aunese Evans, and Daniel Loza joined Childers and ASU’s Wetland Ecosystem Ecology Lab (WEEL) group to work on a plant decomposition study at Tres Rios. As part of their work, they measured greenhouse gas emissions, plant growth, and water evaporation. The three students come from two Phoenix high schools and are part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Assistantships for High School Students (RAHSS) program.

Two undergraduate students assisting the Tres Rios research are funded through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Chris Sanchez, a junior at the University of Miami studying anthropology and environmental sciences, says he can better prepare the high school students because he participated in the RAHSS program when he was in high school. Sanchez mentors the students with another undergraduate, Nich Weller, a senior in ASU’s School of Sustainability studying urban ecosystems. Weller says there is constant collaboration with the high school students.

“They always have questions for us, and oftentimes we have questions for them,” Weller says. “It’s sort of ad hoc learning as you go.”

In the end, Childers hopes that the Tres Rios research gives all the students a learning experience that can’t compare to others.

“I think, fundamentally, what I would like to know is that the process of what we went through this summer has given them an opportunity to think a little more critically and creatively on their own and recognize there’s a big picture to everything,” he says.

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Achieving sustainability one classroom at a time

September 11, 2012

Sander van der Leeuw

Lee Hartwell

Lee Hartwell

New this fall, educators-in-training can be equipped with a wide breadth of knowledge pertaining to all facets of sustainability. Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Biodesign Institute, and School of Sustainability have partnered together to create a course called Sustainability Science for Teachers.

Lee Hartwell, a distinguished sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine, leads the course along with School of Sustainability alumnus Annie Warren and Teachers College Assistant Professor Leanna Archambault. The course aims to provide future educators with successful teaching methods to engage younger students in sustainability science.

“How can we introduce science in a way that feeds the natural curiosity and interest that kids have rather than destroying it?” says Hartwell. “We [teachers] no longer need to become domain experts. We’re seeing the bright young kids being able to move from one arena to another and solving problems.”

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Dean Sander van der Leeuw: Innovate differently for sustainable existence

September 11, 2012

In a recent opinion article featured in Bloomberg, theoretical physicist Mark Buchanan interviews School of Sustainability Dean Sander van der Leeuw on humans’ power to alter the planet.

Buchanan, a columnist for Nature Physics, shares his thoughts on why humans continue to innovate and improve technology, but with ever-increasing consequences on the environment. The sudden explosion in human activity since the Industrial Revolution caused higher temperatures, increased population, and more species extinctions. Now, scientists are calling our present time the “Anthropocene” era—the time period in which human activity affects all of Earth’s processes profoundly.

What sets us apart from other species, Buchanan says, is our ability to innovate through technology.

“New techniques for everything from farming to computation interact and combine to drive the creation of more innovations in an ever-accelerating spiral,” Buchanan writes. “Paradoxically, technological innovation has also created our biggest problems, including climate change, environmental destruction and the threat of nuclear annihilation.”

But, Buchanan points out, innovation and technology is necessary to civilization. How can humans exist without threatening natural systems and avoid additional environmental consequences? Dean Sander van der Leeuw says humans must innovate differently.

“Humans suffer from a mismatch between our thinking about what we do and the truth of what we do,” Buchanan paraphrases van der Leeuw. “Our brains make sense of a multifaceted world by ignoring much of its complexity—a trait Van der Leeuw calls ‘low dimensional’ thinking.”

“Every human action upon the environment modifies the latter in many more ways that its human actors perceive, simply because the dimensionality of the environment is much higher than can be captured by the human mind,” says van der Leeuw.

So the solution? Buchanan and van der Leeuw suggest humans must “innovate differently by using technology to reduce the mismatch between our brains and reality.”

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Researchers identify tradeoffs in combatting urban heat islands

September 10, 2012

A team of researchers from Arizona State University has found that warming resulting from megapolitan expansion is seasonally dependent, with greatest warming occurring during summer and least during winter. Among the most practical ways to combat urbanization-induced warming – the painting of buildings’ roofs white – was found to disrupt regional hydroclimate, highlighting the need for evaluation of tradeoffs associated with combating urban heat islands (UHI).

“We found that raising the reflectivity of buildings by painting their roofs white is an effective way of reducing higher average temperatures caused by urban expansion,” said Matei Georgescu, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and sustainability scientist. “However, increased reflectivity also modifies hydroclimatic processes and, in the case of the ‘Sun Corridor,’ can lead to a significant reduction of rainfall. Our maximum Sun Corridor expansion scenario leads to a 12 percent reduction in rainfall, averaged across the entire state. Painting roofs white leads to an additional 4 percent reduction in rainfall.”

Located in a semi-arid environment, the Sun Corridor is composed of four metropolitan areas: Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott and Nogales. With a population projection expected to exceed 9 million people by 2040, the rapidly expanding megapolitan offers the opportunity to identify tradeoffs focused on sustainable expansion of the built environment.

“Truly sustainable development will have to consider impacts extending beyond average temperature,” Georgescu explained. “A crucial step in that approach is to identify potential adaptation and mitigation strategies and assess tradeoffs, to ensure that we make smart decisions with minimum damaging consequences.”

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Helping cities adapt to climate change

August 30, 2012

Q&A with Nancy Selover

selover (2)Nancy Selover is a Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability, a research professor at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning (College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), and State Climatologist at the Arizona State Climate Office. As a climatologist with an interest in water supply issues, she is co-chair of the Drought Monitoring Technical Committee of the Governor’s Drought Task Force, a member of the Arizona Flood Warning System, a member of the Applied Climatology Committee of the American Meteorological Society, and Arizona’s state coordinator for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, a nationwide citizen-scientist network of precipitation observers.

How did sustainability become part of your research focus?

The issue of sustainable water supply became immediately apparent in 2005 when I joined the Governor’s Drought Task Force as a member of the Monitoring Technical Committee. This group watches Arizona drought conditions statewide and guides the National Drought Monitor reports for Arizona. As a climatologist, I was acutely aware of the scarcity of water resources in desert regions, but as a part of this group I learned how the recharge rate of groundwater is highly variable across our watersheds. So, while the Phoenix area has access to renewable surface water from the Salt, Verde, and Colorado rivers, other parts of the state are not as fortunate. For them, water conservation and sustainable use are critical issues.

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State climatologist, ASU sustainability scientist weigh drought effects on Ariz. agriculture

August 29, 2012

In a feature story titled “Planting Sustainability Ideas” in the State Press Magazine, State Climatologist Nancy Selover tells reporter Shawn Raymundo that “(t)hough 60 percent of the U.S. is in some form of drought … this year is actually mild compared to previous years throughout the decade.”

In the Aug. 29, 2012 online report, Selover noted that “(s)ince the Valley was a major agricultural area for more than 100 years, irrigation systems and canals connected to the Salt and Colorado Rivers were built by the Salt River Project and Central Arizona Project early on to combat the lack of rainfall and prevent water shortages during dry spells.”

Another ASU sustainability scientist, Hallie Eakin, also weighed in on the issue in the story. “It’s always to the interest of the farmer to use their water in the most efficient way possible because of the key resources,” said Eakin, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability.

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ASU named one of nation's best, 'greenest' schools

August 24, 2012

The Princeton Review has listed Arizona State University as one of “the best 377 colleges” in the United States and one of the best western colleges in its 2013 just-released guide.

For the fourth consecutive year, ASU was named as one of the nation’s “greenest universities.” The university also was ranked 71st for “best quality of life.”

Students say ASU’s “greatest strength is the great depth of its faculty and wealth of opportunities offered to students.” Many students say they chose ASU because it “offers a huge range of classes and majors at a reasonable cost,” and the university provides “the best of both worlds: a large research university and an honors program tailored for individual needs.”

ASU was noted for, among other things, having the largest collection of energy-producing solar panels at a public university; its School of Sustainability, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees; its numerous LEED award-winning buildings; and its financial support of bus and light rail passes for students and employees.

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WaterMatch website promotes reuse with companies, universities

August 24, 2012

CH2M HILL’s WaterMatch, a grassroots, goodwill initiative that promotes the reuse of municipal effluent for industrial and agricultural use, is expanding through collaborations with companies and universities around the world. Arizona State University and Intel are among the targets for this expansion in the U.S.

CH2M HILL, a program management, construction management, and design firm located in Denver, developed WaterMatch as a free website that uses social networking and geospatial mapping to connect water generators with water users.

ASU and Intel are working with local municipalities in Arizona and the U.S. Southwest to populate the WaterMatch map and associated wastewater treatment plant profiles. They also are conducting research into the uses and benefits of WaterMatch.

“Our students are eager to engage on the critical issue of water sustainability in Arizona and work on a grassroots project,” said John Sabo, director of Research Development at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “It’s great to see the program our students helped to pilot expand globally.”

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mission

Established in 2006, the School of Sustainability’s mission is to educate a new generation of scholars and practitioners and create innovative modes of scholarship by bringing together leaders, stakeholders, and people from multiple disciplines to develop practical solutions to the most pressing sustainability challenges.

 

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