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'Sustainability' gains status on US campuses

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In some ways, Phoenix makes a good laboratory for studying sustainability – a fast-growing metropolis that is in the middle of a desert. "It is a daunting environment," says Patricia Gober, codirector of the Decision Center for a Desert City, part of ASU. "But we are also an open system, composed largely of migrants, so we are open to innovation, change, new ideas."

Phoenix, like other cities in hot climates, confronts some major "sustainability" problems. One, the nighttime temperatures here now average 10 to 12 degrees warmer than 40 to 50 years ago when the area was less developed. Called the "urban heat island," the higher temperatures mean a greater demand for air conditioning, which requires additional power generation.

But in an ASU lab, scientists Jay Golden and Kamil Kaloush are experimenting with ways to cut down on the heat, including using coatings on street surfaces such as rubber that absorb the heat more efficiently, but also release it faster. "Reducing the urban heat island effect could mean cities like Los Angeles have fewer days when they are not in compliance with EPA air-quality standards, and that could mean more money for them since the EPA cuts funding when a city is not in attainment," says Mr. Golden. Their work is being closely watched in China, where Shanghai has the same problem.

ASU has built a $400 million Biodesign Institute on the campus, and researchers there are trying to implement Crow's vision of emulating natural systems. One example: Neal Woodbury and his colleagues are trying to mimic the way plants take sunlight and carbon dioxide to split water and produce hydrogen, a potential fuel for the future. By creating and identifying new catalysts that greatly speed up nature's process, the experiment could be commercially producing hydrogen in about two years.

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