From the Big Bang to big bucks

Nobel prize winner Arno Penzias sees the end of farming and recalls when video recorders cost $15,000.

Back in the early 1960s, Arno Penzias and a colleague at Bell Labs, Robert Wilson, set out to study radiation emissions in the Milky Way. During their observations, their horn antenna kept picking up an inexplicable, ubiquitous background noise. This turned out to be a remnant of the Big Bang, and the two won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978.

Roughly 15 years later, Penzias migrated to Silicon Valley. As a venture partner in New Enterprise Associates, he seeks out and advises start-ups, particularly those specializing in alternative energy.

The energetic Penzias spoke with CNET's Michael Kanellos recently about developments in the energy field, the looming environmental crisis facing the world, and why Hannibal could get elephants to cross the Alps.

When and why did you come to Silicon Valley?
Penzias: I left the East Coast in 1995. I spent the next three years as Chief Scientist at Lucent. The idea was that I would learn about venture capital start-up companies. This was the time, if you remember, that there was a lot of buzz around the Valley and it was good for both of us. Then in 1998, when I became 65, I had to retire under an age rule. By 1997 or something like that, I was already getting so many invitations from the people for presenting that...the folks of NEA said, "How about just doing this for our companies?"

What is your role in particular at the firm? Do you concentrate on software or relations with researchers?
Penzias: I help companies in all sorts of ways. For example, probably the most far out one (from his area of expertise) is a next-generation interface for the digital home. Imagine something that replaces your remote, but with one button and a uniform interface for your keyboard, your computer files, your cable, and your music. I worked on the marketing strategy and invented some of the components for it. It's called Hillcrest Communications.

I got involved with this guy because I had worked with him in an earlier company, but it isn't that I have expertise. I have not watched a complete television program in several years. I don't watch television. There's no physics involved in this thing, it's all about marketing, understanding business strategies, intellectual property.

"If you really want to save the planet, you've got to genetically modify our food."

You've made a couple of investments in energy companies, but you've also been a vocal, early critic of many alternative energy ideas.
Penzias: Yes, I have been and I'm still enormously skeptical about most of the solutions for alternatives. You have to do end-to-end accounting and a lot of the people who do this stuff are what I would call high verbal, low math. People say when hydrogen burns it produces only water. Did you know that hydrogen is a greenhouse gas? Nobody thinks about it, right? It's my Pit Bull. He's a sweet dog, and unless he's threatened by you he's not going to bite you.

It's a little bit of a problem, but then the bigger problem is, how do you make the hydrogen? You could for example, build nuclear power plants, which then can electrolyze water, and that's a perfectly sensible way.

What would you use? Seawater? There are some companies proposing that.
Penzias: You have to start with fresh water. If you start with seawater you are in big trouble very fast because of the salt content. There is plenty of water up in the Arctic and the power plants could do it there, but then you have to get the hydrogen from those plants. You might be better off with shipping out electricity. I don't know.

How is the underlying technology?
Penzias: In PEM fuel cells (which stands for proton exchange membrane), the proton, the hydrogen nucleus, goes through the material. You can start with natural gas or coal and steam and turn the carbon in the coal or natural gas into carbon dioxide. If you do the reaction right, there's some hydrogen left over. The problem with that is if there is any carbon monoxide left over, that poisons the membrane and the thing dies. That's one of the reasons PEM fuel cells haven't gotten all that far.

There are other kinds of fuel cells, which actually don't transmit hydrogen through the material. That's what they call Solid Oxide Fuel Cells, the SOFCs. In those cases, you take the natural gas, you add some steam, and you heat it up and then that treatment with steam--very hot steam--releases enough hydrogen, which then is burnt. I'm quite enthusiastic about that one.

Have you made any fuel cell investments?
Penzias: We have made one fuel cell investment, but I don't have a lot of detail I want to share with you. It's not a proton exchange membrane fuel cell.

What do you think about wave or wind energy?
Penzias: Wave energy is hopeless. If you built a dam around the entire country--just forget about cost--and take all the tide in and take it back out again--all that energy and all the tides--around the entire United States, it wouldn't take care of one power plant.

Wind works very well on a large scale now. It took a long time to do that. The problem is the channel is broken. Contractors will never touch another windmill again because the old ones had so many problems.

Penzias: With biodiesel you have to be very careful. There is a looming water shortage in the world anyway, so you have to be very careful. There is not a lot of green stuff that we really should be throwing away. The real savings of energy are things like using nuclear power.

If you really want to save the planet, you have got not only to embrace nuclear. One of the things you've really got to do is...genetically modify our food--everything we grow, because we cannot afford the farm anymore. Plowing a field, while it looks wonderful, just look at Iraq. (A few thousand years ago, Iraq and other dry Middle Eastern countries were part of the golden crescent where agriculture evolved.)

The public could be tough to convince.
Penzias: Organic agriculture doesn't work in the long

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