Personalities Plugged In: Steven Chu

By Published On: March 7, 2008

Born in 1948, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steven Chu still conveys the wonder of a young scientist, full of hope that science can solve the dual challenge of global warming and fossil fuel depletion. After a lifetime in the lab advancing the discipline of quantum physics, at age 60 he sits at the pinnacle of one of the nation’s leading institutions in energy research. He’s also key to the new and controversial $500 million lab that is a coalition between BP and University of California, Berkeley. Chu, who comes from a long line of Ph.D. scientists and engineers, has become a champion for some big and novel ideas about how to solve what he calls “the world’s energy problem.” Many of the ideas, like energy intelligent buildings and artificial photosynthesis, combine technologies and scientific disciplines and no doubt derive from his expansive interests, which encompass not only science, but classical music, fiction, and tennis. A physicist by training, he first envisioned himself as a theorist, but became captivated by the experimental side of the discipline while a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley in the 1970s. There, he became infatuated with experimentation after playing around in the lab and devising a way to test the human ear’s ability to hear out of tune violin notes that occurred in classical music. Even as a young boy he remembers being captivated by experimenting with rockets. He cluttered the family living room for days on end with miniature girders and bolts while building myriad contraptions out of erector sets. His ability to intently and persistently focus on problems eventually earned him a plum position at Bell Labs. At the legendary research facility, he succeeded where many other experimental physicists had failed in measuring the energy levels of positronium, a fleeting atomic particle that changes to gamma rays almost as soon as it is born. Chu would go on to win the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 while a professor at Stanford for figuring out how to use laser light to slow down and isolate normally fast moving atoms and molecules long enough to study them in the laboratory. Today, he keeps his hand in experimentation, but has chiefly become occupied with administering the “team science” that the lab’s founder Ernest Lawrence championed beginning in the 1930s. He directs 3,800 employees and an annual budget of $500 million He helps administer the $500 million BP-U.C. Berkeley project to develop sustainable forms of energy to combat climate change and help humanity transition beyond the age of fossil fuels. While he co-pilots this giant research endeavor, he is the first to admit that he “won’t be around” to see the transition to renewable energy. He also bemoans that the unborn–who could face heavy consequences if renewable energy fails–can’t “march on Washington” to represent their interests. Consequently, he points to the younger generation in calling for solutions. “You guys have to do something about it,” Chu told young people at a Sacramento gathering late last month at the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters. In a talk to state scientists, regulators, and other interested parties grappling with how to boost energy efficiency, promote renewable energy, and cut greenhouse gas emissions, he outlined his leading strategies for making an energy transition. They were reminiscent of his boyhood excitement about geometry, where he remembered in an autobiography that, “Beginning from a few intuitive postulates, far reaching consequences could be derived.” In the short-term, Chu said that the key task is to figure out how to use less energy. This will require regulations requiring simple retrofitting of buildings–including homes–with insulation and efficient lighting. Short of regulation, people would prefer to spend their money on marble countertops instead of invisible insulation and tighter fitting windows, he chided. In the longer run, he envisions intelligent buildings where systems are controlled by microprocessors, much like today’s car engines, to optimize energy performance. Chu also sees the need for a fee on carbon to discourage use of fossil fuels and to build some fund to pay for needed research and technology development. The energy future has to be “high-tech,” he said, noting that technology companies typically spend 10 percent of their revenues on research and development. The energy industry and federal government combined spend only a fraction of that amount today. Chu also offers some cautions. For instance, he does not see today’s crop-based biofuels as a sustainable solution to the world’s growing energy and global warming crisis. He believes that massive deployment of wind power cannot succeed without building a truly national power grid, which includes a switch from alternating to direct current. This, he estimates, will cost $500 billion. The Nobel prize-winning physicist also thinks that the best way to maximize geothermal energy will be to inject carbon dioxide into hot geologic formations under extremely high pressure where it would act like a super critical fluid. This would eliminate the tendency for water used today to dissolve rocks and plug geothermal formations and equipment over time, which results in loss of power production. Chu seems most excited about using emerging science to find energy solutions. For instance, he notes that nano technology may be on the cusp of a breakthrough by enabling low-cost continuous production of photovoltaic materials. Ultimately, he said, the key to developing a sustainable energy source for humanity lies in mimicking nature. Key strategies include emulating microbes in the guts of “hungry termites” to make biofuels out of grass and other cellulosic material instead of out of starch and sugar from food crops. He even foresees the day when scientists will learn how to mimic photosynthesis–that is, to create hydrocarbons out of water and oxygen–through an artificial process that could be carried out at an industrial scale. Citing the American novelist William Faulkner, who called humanity “immortal” due to having “a soul” and “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” Chu predicts that people will rise to solve the world’s great energy problem.

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