Staying in the Solution: Peter Byck is a Glass Half-Full Guy

Peter_Byck_UPS_Shoot_Ronald_Eastman-1024x768(As seen in Green Living Magazine, Aug. 2013 –

In a world of many glass half-empty (or completely empty) environmental documentaries, filmmaker Peter Byck is a glass half-full guy. Consider his 2010 documentary, Carbon Nation. Not only does the title indicate that its maker doesn’t take himself too seriously, the solutions based film reaches out to everybody – whether they believe in climate change or not.

Byck, a freshly minted addition to the Arizona State University faculty, didn’t set out to be a teacher.  After finishing film school at California Institute of the Arts, he embarked on a career in the business, spending more than 20 years doing things like directing shows for MTV, and editing documentaries and promotional shorts for big names and big studios.  Yet even though he didn’t plan on becoming an educator, his mind sort of worked that way.

“It’s funny. When I was in film school, which is a long time ago, 82 to 86, I was already thinking of ways to teach, not planning on it, but things were popping into my head. There’s always been something there.”

Something there will be something here this fall when Byck starts his new job as Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media.  There, in a class called Sustainability Storytelling, students will learn how to make documentaries about clean energy.  Byck describes himself as a big fan of solar power, the perfect thing to explore in Arizona.

“The first place that we’re going to delve into is all the solar work that’s going on in Gila Bend. The class starts in August and we’ll starting shooting in September.”  Byck’s goal is to teach his students everything he knows in the process.  “You can’t replace experience, but you can give the rules … all the mechanisms I’ve learned in filmmaking.”

One of the recent mechanisms he’s used is approaching environmental issues, most notably carbon, from a positive standpoint. While Byck notes that there are films he admires for how they were able to motivate change, he wanted to take a different view.  “When I saw ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ I thought it was a very well-made film about what the problem was. And then I wanted to make a film about the solution.”

That fresh perspective has opened doors. According to Byck, donors, audiences, liberals and conservatives all liked the approach.  “I’ve been asked to show the film and speak at places all over the world and I don’t think it would happen if it wasn’t about solutions. No one knew who I was before I made the movie, so it wasn’t that.” Nor is he focused on making everybody believe the same thing he does. In fact, one of the individuals featured in the film does not believe that humans are causing climate change, yet has created break-through geothermal technology.  By setting aside the debate about whether or not climate change is happening, people can look at larger issues. Byck suggests that the commonality between us is that we all seem to like clean air and water.

Most of us can agree that, by their nature, documentaries are educational, sometimes to the point where viewers might feel like they’re being hovered over by a watchful parent and being forced to those mushy brussel sprouts. Carbon Nation is a meticulously researched educational tool, but it’s more than that.  “We look at is as entertainment, too. If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it. Even our title has a sense of humor. We want people to know that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. … (But) we took the art and the entertainment piece seriously to make sure it communicated to people.”

That approach is working. After a screening for 250 students at a Lexington, Kentucky high school, the film received a standing ovation. “What we’ve been told and what we’ve seen is that climate and energy films really scare the living daylights out of kids. Our film doesn’t scare them. It was a relief to them.”

The film’s reach into educational settings will grow this fall.  When Byck learned from leaders at The Boeing Company (who also sponsored the film’s premier in Seattle) that the film could be an important supplement or to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, he decided make sure it was accessible.  Recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative America, he announced that Carbon Nation will be available – free – to students and teachers. Interested educators and students can go to to sign up for viewing.

In addition to his teaching duties at ASU, Byck has started work on Carbon Nation 2.0. As he starts to put together the pieces for a new film, finding those who are making a difference and introducing them to us, he’s sure that the project will be delivered with a light touch.  “When I’m laughing, I’m also more apt to take action. That’s part of the inspiration.”




Little Green Machines

Algae-LittleGreenMachines(As seen in Green Living Magazine, Oct. 2013 –

If a person thinks of algae, they mostly likely think it’s time to clean the pool. But there is a place in Mesa that concentrates on growing the stuff on purpose. The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), a part of the College of Technology and Innovation on the Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, is dedicated to researching the uses for those little green organisms.

When I asked Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, professor and co-director of AZCATI, about the difference between what clouds up the swimming pool and what the lab grows in giant test tubes, he says, “It’s essentially the same thing. One of the best strains in terms of petroleum was isolated from a small pond in Phoenix.”

Striking Oil

For years, the big story about algae is about turning it into biofuel. According to Sommerfeld, about 50 percent of some algae strains are oil. He provides a brief history lesson:  In the late 1970s, the government realized that the country had become too dependent on foreign oil and initiated the Aquatic Species Program, an effort to research algae as a potential oil source. He and others went out bio-prospecting throughout the Southwest, identified as desirable because of its sunny climate.

Oil extracted from algae looks like dark crude oil. When processed into biodiesel, it’s as clear and gold as the vegetable oil in the pantry. (It even smells like vegetable oil.) Unfortunately, although research findings continue to look positive, he says that developing a fuel product to compete in a commodity market is challenging and that while we’ve been extracting oil for more than 100 years, research on biofuels is relatively new.

You’re Already Eating It

To illustrate the diverse range of products that contain algae, Sommerfeld has a line of containers on his desk. He holds up two jars – one with dark green powder, one with lighter green powder. Both are biomass, what’s left of algae once either water or oil has been extracted. This is the stuff that is rich with protein and carbohydrate and is put in health supplements, or used by his wife for algae cookies.

Even if you’re not a health-food-healthie, you’ve probably been consuming algae without knowing it. Sommerfeld hands over an empty ice cream carton with the ingredient carrageenan circled, explaining that anything a food producer wants to be creamy (including ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, salad dressing or even the head of foam on beer) contains a by-product of red algae, agar or algenic acid.

Algae is not only a source of fuel oil, but a source of omega 3 fatty acids, what most of us call fish oil.  The latest health supplement, derived from red algae, is astaxanthin (ast-a-zan-thin), a powerful anti-oxidant.

Cool Clear Water

When research on algae started in the Southwest, researchers were using highly saline aquifer water. The idea was to find environments in which the algae would survive. What has evolved it using algae to assist in water purification processes. AZCATI uses various waste water sources to test how algae absorbs nitrogen and phosphorous from effluent and gray water. Once the organism has eaten its fill, so to speak, it can be used for fertilizer. Sommerfeld hopes that in the future, farmers use and re-use algae as a soil amendment, cutting down on synthetic fertilizers that create unhealthy run-off.

In the Field

The AZCATI facility looks like any other office or classroom building, full of offices and labs, including a small room full of very technical-looking devices that Sommerfeld calls the million dollar room. We pass through areas where men and women in lab coats examine slides, and test tubes the size of packing cylinders bubble. This is where algae strains are identified and tested. Depending on the results, they get promoted to be tested outside.

Across the street behind a high fence are shallow pools in sizes small, medium and large equipped with paddlewheels to keep the algae moving and exposed to light. Farther back, in 50-foot rows, are panels approximately four feet tall and three inches wide, slim acrylic sandwiches full of bubbling fluid in various shades of green.  Once the algae appears nearly black, it’s ready to harvest and process further.  Not far away is a field lab where further testing is done.

And Beyond

AzCATI’s doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however.  Although the center is part of ASU, it is dedicated to serve as a place for research, testing and the eventual commercialization of algae-based products, providing open test and evaluation facilities for the algae industry and research community.  Sommerfeld explains that the goal is to have “universities, national labs, industries come here and collaborate with us and to, in a sense, build the innovation base that we need for an algae industry.”