Chu maintains that in the mid- to long term, it will take technological breakthroughs, not just rapid implementation of existing technology, to address climate change. It is "a problem that science and technology really have to solve," he says. "There are so many things we can do today, especially on the energy-efficiency side, but in order to get us where we really need to go — to better than an 80 or 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions, all while still having the developing world enjoy an even higher standard of living — we really need to have better choices."
Chu took the job with strong opinions about which choices deserve serious consideration, and he's begun to make those preferences clear through budgeting decisions. In early May, for example, he announced $786.5 million in funding intended to increase fundamental research in advanced biofuels. A few days later, in contrast, he slashed $100 million from automotive hydrogen-fuel-cell research. Explaining his decision, he gave a withering assessment of the prospects for hydrogen cars, saying that he wanted to invest in programs that "will actually get us on a lower carbon-emissions path."
Among Chu's admirers, any hesitation about his prospects in the DOE derives from the magnitude of the job he faces. Part of this is his fault; no one has been more articulate about those challenges than Chu himself. In public lectures for the past four and a half years, he used his platform at Lawrence Berkeley to lay out the scientific evidence behind global warming. In a notable lab lecture, he once connected the "not-so-hidden costs of our present energy diet" with national security and ongoing economic prosperity. "For this reason, it's arguable — not only arguable but obvious, at least to me," he said, "that getting sustainable CO2-neutral energy is the most important technological or scientific challenge we face today."
Chu's pre-DOE curriculum vitae is filled with accounts of solving borderline-unsolvable scientific problems. Like all Nobel Prize winners, Chu wrote an autobiographical essay when he received the award that traces his history. This portrait of the scientist as a young man follows his growth from a Long Island boyhood spent tinkering with an erector set on a living-room floor, through the decades he dedicated to figuring out a method of cooling atoms so much (specifically, to 240 millionths of a degree above absolute zero) that they could be trapped, observed, and put to work. He was instrumental in creating a six-beam laser trap, from which atoms cannot escape and inside of which they lose so much energy that atoms, which at room temperature move at essentially unobservable speeds, slow to centimeters per second. The discovery has had all manner of applications, including improving the accuracy of the atomic clock maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology by more than tenfold.
As a graduate student in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, Chu quickly attracted the attention of Eugene Commins, who was teaching one of the required courses. "Steve asked me very early on whether I could take him on as a research student," Commins says. "He was clearly the best student in the class. At first I was embarrassed, because I didn't really have a good problem for him to work on." Eventually the two settled on an experiment designed to test a piece of the then-new Standard Model of particle physics by looking for evidence of interactions between electrons and quarks.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.