Energy Secretary Chu: Win a Nobel, save world

Speaking at MIT, Steven Chu says applied research on clean energy will lead to fundamental inventions that will spark economic growth and address climate change.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the Department of Energy plans to establish research centers modeled on Bell Laboratories to spark the development of disruptive energy inventions.

Chu delivered the Compton lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday, where he told academics and local green-tech business people that the world needs technology breakthroughs in energy to hedge against high fossil fuel prices, to improve national security, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

During his talk, Chu singled out a number of energy technologies that demand more research, including batteries, solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity, bio-energy, and capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground. Buildings equipped with sensors and better building material, for example, could be 80 percent more efficient, and synthetic biology could coax microbes into producing gasoline from plants, Chu said.

Energy secretary Steven Chu delivering the Compton lecture on research at MIT. Martin LaMonica/CNET

By pursuing these low-carbon technologies, researchers will undoubtedly invent technologies that will lead to different applications, much the way the development of the transistor for communications at AT&T's Bell Labs led to the computer revolution, Chu said.

"There's going to be very exciting science that will come out of this. And just like Bell Labs, where you wanted to deliver some goods in the end, but boy there is going to be a lot of very fundamental stuff you have to develop along the way," he said. "So you can have a Nobel prize and save the world at the same time."

The Energy Department's budget will balloon in the near future, with $37 billion from the federal recovery act coming in the next two years, on top of its existing $26 billion budget. There will be money dedicated to basic research, but Chu said that he intends to promote applied energy research as well with the creation of eight "innovation hubs."

These hubs will be modeled on three existing bio-energy research centers, but expanded to include centers for batteries, building science and other areas, Chu said. His 2010 budget calls for $280 million to create these hubs.

The three centers have adopted a Bell Labs-like structure where people work on different areas and there is meant to be collaboration with industry as well, he said. At Bell Labs in the past, managers were top-notch scientists which helped the lab to make decisions quickly and develop many basic technologies, such as the photovoltaic solar cell and the laser, Chu said.

"A lot of the best research started as mission-oriented, applied research," he said. "Even when they worked on commercial applications, the research led to other inventions."

Basic versus applied research
In response to a question from a student, Chu said that the DOE does not at all intend to shy away from basic science research. President Obama in March called for doubling the amount of spending on basic science over the next 10 years to address the need for new energy technology and spur economic development. The Energy Department has also created DARPA-E, an agency modeled after the defense agency that led to the creation of the Internet.

But the amount of money that the U.S. spends on R&D is tiny in relation to the trillion dollars spent on energy every year, Chu said.

"Energy of the future will certainly have to be more high-tech, so in a high-tech industry what you typically do is invest on the order of 10 percent or more of sales in R&D," he said. "Well, 10 percent of a trillion dollars is $100 billion a year. That's a lot of money and we're really investing a couple billion, so the scale is not proportional to what is needed."

A slide from Steven Chu's speech on research at MIT. Martin LaMonica/CNET

That influx of money to the Energy Department, for both research grants and loans to companies seeking to bring new technologies to market, has people concerned in industry that the money will not be well spent.

Chu acknowledged that this is a serious challenge for the Energy Department. In an effort to streamline the bureaucracy, he has made some organizational changes including a board established to efficiently vet loan and grant applications.

In addition, Chu said that in the coming weeks he will be sending letters to university teachers and students asking for their help in assessing the merits of research applications.

"This is a huge load on the system and we need the best help we can get," he said. "The quality of reviews has to go up. It's very important we get it right."

Earlier on Tuesday, Chu held a press conference in Boston to announce the award of $25 million to a research center for testing wind turbine blades in Charlestown, Mass.

Economic growth
Chu started his talk reviewing the latest data on the effects of climate change, which is happening as fast as--or even faster than--scientists have predicted.

Polar ice cap coverage is decreasing and the rate of sea level rise has accelerated over the last two decades. In British Columbia, 2006 data showed that 40 percent of pine forests were killed by pine bark beetles, fewer of which are killed by winter frosts because of warming temperatures.

In addition, there is growing awareness of potential tipping points, such as the release of methane from permafrost in the tundra. "We're getting close to where it's a very nervous time," he said.

But Chu is hopeful that the world can move to sustainable energy because of the breakthroughs scientists have achieved in the past. The so-called green revolution allowed people in the middle of the 20th century to get more food from the same amount of land.

He said he is a strong believer that investments in science and technology are also the best way to spur economic growth.

"I'm a big believer in the fact that science and technology will be a cornerstone, if not the cornerstone, for how America will prosper in this century, so what we're investing now is nothing," he said.