Green Initiatives

Green Initiatives

September 21, 2007

September 20, 2007

Joe Caspermeyer, Media Relations Manager & Science Editor
(480) 727-0369 |


Among the Biodesign Institute’s large thematic areas is a focus on energy and the environment. Our commitment to sustainable initiatives reflects ASU’s leadership in this arena. Our facility was the first in Arizona to earn the top Platinum ranking for environmentally-friendly design and construction from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Our research includes work in the areas of alternative fuel and environmental remediation.

Microbial Biofuel: "Tubes in the Desert"

The Biodesign Institute is part of an ASU initiative to develop a new form of biofuel using tiny microorganisms called cyanobacteria. These photosynthetic bacteria contain lipids (fats) that can be converted directly to high-energy fuels such as biodiesel. Biodiesel can be used as fuel in internal combustion engines or directly by power generating stations. The bacteria would be grown in transparent tubes; so the project has become known as the "Tubes in the Desert" initiative. This renewable technology holds significant promise, with an estimated yield that is many times greater than corn, switch grass, or other plant-based approaches. Furthermore, the bacteria are "fed" carbon dioxide--such as that from conventional coal burning power plants--creating a carbon neutral energy source.

Unlike plant biomass, the use of photosynthetic bacteria in the production of biofuel eliminates the need for costly and complex processing, and it allows for the efficient use of land unsuitable for crops. This lack of competition with food production, along with the higher yield per acre, gives the bacteria-based system the potential to replace fossil fuels in a major way, something which other biofuels cannot accomplish given the land mass required and/or growing cycles.


Bruce Rittmann, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology
Willem Vermaas, Professor, ASU School of Life Sciences
Neal Woodbury, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology

Hydrogen Energy

A $2.5 million investment, spanning five years, will drive research in developing alternative fuel that uses sunlight and advanced bacteria to create biohydrogen.

In harnessing energy from sunlight using microbial photosynthesis to produce biohydrogen, ASU’s biohydrogen project aims to create the ideal environmental energy source that is easy and economical to produce, and does not generate greenhouse gases or pollute the air when burned.

A second part of this project focuses on converting waste materials from the initial process to produce even more hydrogen.

With the goal of researching new sustainable technologies to ensure a healthy future for the planet and its inhabitants, ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, the School of Sustainability and the Biodesign Institute are coordinating the funding for the biohydrogen project.

A group of ASU researchers at the Biodesign Institute is also working on a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore innovative methods for generating hydrogen. The effort is exploring new ways to efficiently convert water into hydrogen. The four-year grant is part of a new round of DOE funded projects in support of President George W. Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, to address the technical and economic challenges in developing renewable and distributed hydrogen production technologies.


Bruce Rittmann, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology
Willem Vermaas, Professor, ASU School of Life Sciences
Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Associate Professor, ASU School of Life Sciences
Neal Woodbury, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology

Solar Energy

The Biodesign Institute has a number of projects exploring various aspects of solar energy. One of these--funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation is an innovative project designed to break through the current technological hurdles of solar energy and make it a more viable energy source

Today’s solar panels, made up of thousands of individual solar cells, are extremely inefficient and costly to produce, limiting Sunbelt states like Arizona from fully utilizing its most abundant renewable energy resource. The team’s goal is to create tiny, nanoscale devices for higher efficiency solar energy and photonics applications. This so-called ’bottom up’ approach to nanotechnology promises to take on the challenges of solar energy research by building devices atom by atom at a scale a thousand times finer than the width of a human hair.


Stuart Lindsay, Director, Biodesign Institute Center for Single Molecule Biophysics.
Rudy Diaz, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and WINTech/Connection One, the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering

Biomass Conversion to Gaseous Fuels

Biomass includes plants materials, animal waste, and microorganisms. Biomass contains a large amount of renewable energy, but most of that energy is not in a form that can be utilized by society. Communities of microorganisms are able to convert the energy value of biomass into methane or hydrogen gases. Methane is natural gas, which is widely used today, and hydrogen can be used with fuel cells. Our research addresses how to make the biomass readily available for the microorganisms to convert to methane or hydrogen and how to create modern bioreactors that optimize the conditions for the microorganisms that produce methane or hydrogen.


Bruce Rittmann, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology

Microbial Fuel Cells

A revolutionary new environmental biotechnology, the Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC), turns the treatment of organic wastes into a source of electricity. The scientific breakthrough leading to advancement of this project is the recent discovery that some bacteria can transfer electrons into an electrode and create electricity. The MFC takes advantage of this by allowing microorganisms to remove the electrons from organic compounds in biomass, including waste materials. These can include human sewage, animal waste, and agricultural wastes. The microorganisms remove the electrons, transfer them into the anode of the fuel cell, and produce electrical energy. The MFC also can be modified to generate biohydrogen, instead of electricity, creating a renewable source of hydrogen gas for conventional fuel cells and reducing oxidized contaminants.


Bruce Rittmann, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology

Bioremediation of Water Containing Oxidized Contaminants

Using naturally occurring microorganisms, the Membrane Biofilm Reactor (MBfR) removes oxidized contaminants from water. Oxidized contaminants are the new challenge in water reclamation, as their harmful effects have been recognized only recently. The MBfR creates an environment where the microorganisms can thrive when reducing the oxidized contaminants to harmless forms: a container with millions of tiny hollow tubes that get coated with a biofilm. Hydrogen gas is supplied to the inside of the tubes, and it diffuses through the membrane walls of the tube. This delivers hydrogen to the microorganisms, which transfer electrons from the hydrogen to the contaminants—a process that turns the harmful contaminants into harmless forms. Currently being commercialized, the MBfR is able to rid water of many harmful oxidized contaminants. These include perchlorate (a component of rocket fuel), selenate (found in coal wastes and agricultural drainage), trichloroethane (TCE) and other chlorinated solvents (a major pollutant of the semi-conductor industry), and chromate (the pollutant Erin Brockovich fought). The MBfR is a prime example of using the capabilities already available in nature—with the right human assistance-- to assist in cleaning up the planet.


Bruce Rittmann, Director, Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology

Related links:

Environmental biotechnology projects

Bacteria for biofuel

Science Foundation Arizona Graduate Research Fellowships - Research Areas

Researchers evaluate algae jet fuel

Biodesign Institute at ASU earns Arizona’s top rating from US Green Building Council

$22M investment funds fresh ASU initiatives

New fund aims to make clean biofuel a reality

Biodesign Institute scientists offer new view of photosynthesis

ASU embarks on $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant for Nanotechnology Solar Energy Initiative

Arntzen in the spotlight for national science policy, plant biology honors

ASU Embarks on Innovative Fuel Cell Project


Spotlight Videos


Bioremediation - Panel Discussion


Written by: Joe Caspermeyer