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Home arrow Blog arrow 3/5/07- A WARMING WORLD As warnings grow more dire, Nobelist emerges as leader

3/5/07- A WARMING WORLD As warnings grow more dire, Nobelist emerges as leader PDF Print E-mail
Written by Rick DelVecchio   
Tuesday, 06 March 2007

The director of Lawrence Berkeley lab is pushing his scientitsts and industry to develope technologies to reverse clmate change

Steve Chu keeps up with all the latest news on climate change, and he knows it's bad.

The Nobel-winning physicist can tell you the projected meltdown rates for the snowpacks of Tibet and the Sierra Nevada. Rivers drying up and millions of people on the move looking for a drink of water? That future, a fantasy just a few years ago, has entered the realm of the possible.

But Chu isn't just talking.

As head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he is focusing all divisions of the most intellectually diverse of the U.S. Energy Department's national labs on a campaign to stand and fight.

"These are serious predictions," Chu, 59, said in a recent interview. "It's prudent risk management. It's like saying, 'Your house will burn down in the next 10 years -- 50 percent probability. By the way, do you want fire insurance?' "

Chu, who combines a scientific mind thirsting for challenges with an enthusiasm that people find catching, has emerged internationally to champion science as society's best defense against climate catastrophe.

"He's using his leadership to challenge their scientists and gear them into addressing this problem in the one last chance we have," said Nate Lewis, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology and an adviser on Chu's energy program. "We don't have that much time."

Chief in Chu's campaign is an unprecedented research pact reached recently between UC Berkeley, oil industry giant BP, the Lawrence Berkeley lab and the University of Illinois.

Chu's role in promoting the clout of the closely aligned research programs at the lab and UC Berkeley helped persuade BP to pick the campus for its $500 million biofuels institute.

Nearly $400 million in new lab space will expand energy-related molecular work centered at Lawrence Berkeley that involves a cast of partners around the world. And a $160 million Energy Biosciences Institute to be built in three years and funded by BP will include Chu's separate solar energy program. The expansion will put the Lawrence Berkeley lab and UC Berkeley at the center of the world's push for alternative fuels.

To Chu, whose heroes include Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, what's needed now is the will to face the crisis and then to break it down into its component problems.

New energy sources

The first challenge is finding zero-carbon energy sources on a mass scale. Climate change results mainly from there being too much carbon in the atmosphere. Compounding the problem, coal and oil are likely to remain relatively cheap and abundant sources of fuel, especially in the developing world, for decades to come.

Chu is building the lab's capacity to develop zero-carbon energy sources in 10 to 20 years, especially biofuels and a new generation of solar cells.

The profile of lab namesake E.O. Lawrence's enormous particle colliders, which facilitated many breakthroughs in 20th century nuclear physics, has shrunk as the lab morphs into a plant designing and building bioengineered machines from molecule-sized parts. The focus is on the leverage gained when just about every molecule in a system is designed to do work.

In the face of relentlessly rising demand, the world needs mass quantities of renewable fuels to keep the situation stable and an almost total conversion to renewables to significantly improve it.

Racing against time, Chu is particularly interested in solar technology. His colleagues at the lab are thinking of farms of photovoltaic cells concentrating sunlight with a coating of nanoparticles, called "solar paint." And they're working on converting solar to liquid fuel by mimicking plant photosynthesis.

Chu started the Helios Project as a framework for his total energy campaign and, not incidentally, a way to market the Lawrence Berkeley lab to private and government funders and to inform outsiders about the lab's work.

Addressing demand, politics

The second challenge is consumption. The Lawrence Berkeley lab has been a world innovator on energy efficiency -- work leading to the invention of the compact fluorescent light bulb was done there. Chu wants more inventions like that. He's thinking about things like super-efficient commercial buildings and new designs for green cities.

Many nations have ambitious conservation goals but some of the largest, such as China, lack the means to reach them.

"In order to get close, they really need our help." Chu said. "They're not going to do much til the U.S. leads the way."

The third challenge is politics. Numerous coal-fired power plants in China and India serve cheap electricity to the poor, and many more are planned. The poor and powerless can't do much about that, but the rich and politically powerful can. They can look scientific facts in the eye and afford to act prudently.

They may find they can't afford not to.

"Give signals to industry there's going to be a price on carbon -- over a 10- to 15- year period," Chu said, suggesting a mechanism for making alternative fuels more attractive. "The history of innovation has taught us that, once people stop thinking politically and start thinking from a scientific point of view, surprisingly all the predictions of 'We can't do this' don't seem to come true."

At the Feb. 1 announcement of BP's largesse, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held center stage. Over his left shoulder was Chu, a slim, cool figure. He wasn't saying "Hooray, we won," but this was a nice payment on that climate change insurance. Nice, but not enough. Even $1 billion, a figure Chu likes for the Lawrence Berkeley energy effort, may not be enough.

"That is actually a small amount of money because in the end, in order to get this out into production, it's going to be industrial investment that will carry the day," Chu said. "The issue is how do you get it, so you start partnerships with industry."

Chu has raised $25 million from private sources for Helios, the state has pledged $70 million for the BP building and a winning bid for a federal biofuels lab would bring in another $125 million.

"We spend more money in an hour buying gas at the pump than we spend funding solar energy research in our entire country for an entire year," said Caltech's Lewis.

The science establishment says what energy research needs is what weapons research has with the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, a funding pool for high-risk research done by universities, industry and the national labs. Chu and other top scientists are promoting the idea, which Congress is considering.

Chu came up with his energy strategy soon after he took his new job, moved by the increasingly dire news about climate change.

"When he was first here, he started giving talks about energy and production of energy," said Bob Jacobsen, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley lab and a UC Berkeley physics professor. "He didn't just present a problem. He told us what we could do. It was an energizing thing to see. He's not a manager, he's a leader."

Entrepreneurial attitude

Chu came to the Lawrence Berkeley lab in 2004, hired away from Stanford. He did his graduate and post-doctoral work in physics at Cal before working as a technician at Bell Labs, and he was attracted to the idea of reinvigorating Lawrence Berkeley.

Chu's colleagues talk at least as much about his leadership qualities as his technical skills. Arguably the lab's best proselytizer since Lawrence, he gets out there and sells. Lawrence Berkeley, in his scheme, is the hub of an "ecosystem" linking the different money, political and brain powers from Sacramento to Silicon Valley.

"He's having a great time," said Cal physics professor and lab scientist Richard Muller. "He's really enjoying himself. He had the vision to recognize this was a wonderful opportunity."

Chu picked up his entrepreneurial attitude toward science at Bell Labs, where he worked as a technician and led a research department from 1978 to 1987. Marvin Cohen, a UC Berkeley physics professor and lab scientist, said the atmosphere at Lawrence Berkeley lab "has changed significantly" under Chu.

"The lab is more or less rewriting some of its charter, to do (more than) the science of how you convert light into energy or electricity," Cohen said. "It's not just the science, but also by bringing companies in, collaborating with them and making it easier for people like me, let's say, to file patents and license these patents out. All of a sudden we've become commercial. Fifteen or 20 years ago, none of my students even knew what a patent was.

Chu wants the best and the brightest from elsewhere to come to Berkeley to help save the world -- and, who knows, win a Nobel before age 50 like he did.

"We'd like to recruit some of the emerging superstars and established superstars," Chu said.

"It's beginning to happen," Chu said. "I think there really is a possibility that UCB and LBNL could be one of the intellectual centers of the world," he said.

"These are really great times."

Steve Chu
Age: 59

Position: director, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Nobel prize: physics, 1997

Birthplace: St. Louis

Quote: "It's remarkable what simple curiosity can lead to."

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