The Energy Problem and the Interplay Between Basic and Applied Research

The situation facing our planet could hardly be more dire: There’s increasingly dangerous competition among nations for ever scarce energy resources, and climate change is racing ahead of predictions. Although Steven Chu believes “We are getting close to where it’s very nervous time,” he also sees “reason for hope.”

Just as science in the 1970s produced a “green revolution” in agricultural productivity, preventing mass starvation in a swelling global population, Chu is counting on transformative scientific and engineering ideas to achieve sustainable energy and cap climate change.

As chief architect of new policy, and with tens of billions of dollars to pump into his vision, Chu is targeting key areas. Number one on his list: energy efficiency and conservation. Since buildings use 40% of the nation’s total energy, designing more efficient homes and offices will make a big difference. There are “tune ups” possible for existing buildings, and software that can direct lighting, heating and cooling where it’s needed that can achieve 50% plus energy savings, and won’t break the bank. Says Chu, “This is truly low-hanging fruit, but we have to build the tools that allow architects and structural engineers to get on with it.”

On the supply side, Chu has his heart set on transformative technologies such as nanotech breakthroughs in solar power. He’s looking for ways to scale up biomass fuel production, now that synthetic biology can make microbes manufacture gas-like fuels. Noting in particular the work of MIT’s Dan Nocera, Chu says he “wants to use nature as an inspiration, but go beyond nature,” performing artificial photosynthesis to create new hydrocarbons. And as the U.S. and China continue dependence on coal, figuring out how to capture and sequester carbon from these plants figures “high on the list of things we must do.” He’s again hoping researchers will find some analog to nature’s ability to grab and neutralize CO2.

The ideal environment for jumpstarting such urgent scientific efforts, believes Chu, is something like Bell Labs, where Chu himself worked. The Labs performed “mission-driven research” around communications and for U.S. war efforts, but along the way also developed the transistor, information theory, radio astronomy, and lasers, among many examples. These scientist-led labs emphasized exchange of ideas and rapid infusion of research funds to the most promising work. This led to inventions that in turn transformed the U.S. economy. Chu envisions energy lab equivalents that “deliver the goods” along with fundamental science, “so you can have the Nobel Prize and save the world at the same time.”

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The Energy Problem and the Interplay Between Basic and Applied Research

Steven Chu

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