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Government & Policy

March 2, 2009
Volume 87, Number 09
Web Exclusive

Push For Energy Technology

DOE Secretary Steven Chu stresses science role for agency

Jeffrey W. Johnson

IN A FREE-WHEELING discussion with more than 50 reporters on Feb. 19, Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke about a broad range of tough issues that are likely to define his time at the Department of Energy—from oil prices to government-funded energy loans to renewable energy.


During the hour-long briefing—organized by Platts, an international energy information publisher—Chu answered questions frankly but admitted that he was sometimes unsure of all facets of DOE's policies. He has been on the job for only three weeks and is still learning about DOE, he noted, adding that he is also searching for a home in the Washington, D.C., area.

One thing Chu did make clear was his list of goals for DOE. His top priority will be to create jobs and help restore the economy. The next item on his department's to-do list, he told reporters, is to increase the speed at which energy science discoveries move from basic research to marketplace deployment.

Chu stressed the difficulties in getting advanced energy technologies to market. He also said his hope is to encourage greater commercial penetration of energy science and the creation of a new green industry with a global reach and with America as its leader.

At the briefing, Chu applauded DOE's historical role as the nation's largest funder of basic physical science research and noted that more than 80 Nobel Prizes have resulted, at least in part, from DOE-supported research. "This research," he said, "has been a primary contributor to much of the prosperity we enjoy today, and I do not want to sacrifice that part of DOE at any level.

"But one of the things we do less well," he continued, "is capture the basic DOE-funded energy research that comes from the great national labs and research universities and transport those fundamental discoveries into things industry will pick up."

A model for Chu is industry-funded research and development centers like Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and IBM, where companies made "heavy investments in research that went from fundamental science to inventions like the computer mouse." Breakthroughs because of these investments led to the development of semiconductors, computers, the Internet, and biotechnology.

"Given the caliber of scientists working on energy issues, I am optimistic."

"But in the energy sector, we don't have this," he said. Filling that vacuum between basic research and industry energy-product deployment will be a major role for DOE and the national labs under his leadership, Chu said.

He led off the press briefing with an announcement of a new program to speed release of nearly $40 billion in DOE grants and loan guarantees for energy developers, which is available under the stimulus package. DOE would start releasing funds this summer and should have 70% of the total given out by the end of 2010, Chu said. The funds are critical to creating jobs and restoring the economy, he said frequently during the briefing.

ALTHOUGH Chu admitted that he has to master money- and policy-speak for his new job, as a physicist, Nobel Laureate, and former DOE lab director, he is comfortable discussing science.

For instance, Chu looked to science when answering questions doubting the likely success of the Obama Administration's ambitious goals of doubling renewable energy generation within three years or producing 21 billion gal of cellulosic ethanol by 2022.

On renewable energy, he pointed to ongoing research that would continue to reduce the costs of wind and solar energy, particularly solar-thermal energy technologies, and he singled out electric-grid-related projects that were "shovel ready" once the stimulus funds were available.

On biofuels, he said, "For a scientist, we take [the cellulosic goal] as a challenge. There are a number of very, very smart people working on ways to change cellulose into not only ethanol but into biofuels beyond ethanol." He pointed to R&D of gasoline-like biofuels under way at DOE's three biofuel centers, specifically citing the one at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that he ran.

"Given the caliber of scientists working on energy issues, I am optimistic," he said. "The landscape has changed. We have a totally different level of activity now and have really lurched forward."

The energy and climate-change problems are so serious, he said, that many scientists and their students have shifted their career focus to energy, greatly enlarging the energy research field.

"I did this myself six years ago for exactly those reasons," he pointed out.

"What I am saying is give us a couple more years," Chu continued, and with time, scientists will develop better biofuels and overcome current problems, such as difficulties with pipeline transportation and with turning large amounts of cellulose-rich waste into fuel.

"Keep the cellulosic goal there, and let us work on it," he said.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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