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Nobel Prize winner to head Department of Energy

11 December 2008

Nobel Prize winner to head Department of Energy

President-elect Obama's transition team is expected to shortly announce that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu will be nominated as secretary of energy, while Lisa Jackson, a former environmental policy official in New Jersey, has been picked to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Carol Browner, who led the EPA under President Clinton, will fill a new White House "energy czar" role. The announcements came from Democratic officials on Wednesday night.

Chu, who will be the first Nobel Prize winner to be appointed to the US cabinet, is the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and has played a key role in moving the lab in the direction of specializing in renewable energy, particularly in the field of new fuels for transportation. LBNL is experimenting with making biofuels from different types of biomass, using algae in fermentation tanks to make fuel, and applying solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide to fuels. "[President-elect Obama] certainly needs somebody who can focus on the science and energy policies and I can't think of a better guy than Steve," says Mike Lubell from the American Physical Society.

Originally his father wanted him to be an architect as "the competition in physics was too strong." Chu did both his graduate and postdoctoral research at UC Berkeley. He then spent nine years at Bell Labs before joining Stanford University's physics department where he remained between 1987-2004. He shared the 1997 Nobel Prize with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Phillips for cooling and trapping atoms with lasers.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would invest $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy and proposed requiring that 10 percent of electricity in the United States comes from renewable sources by 2012. Chu, has been one of the most public faces of promoting renewable energy. At the National Clean Energy Summit held in August, Chu said "I think political will is absolutely necessary. But we need new technologies."

Chu is also one of the co-authors of the 2006 National Academy of Sciences' report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future , in which he lobbied for the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the Department of Energy as a way of funding risky hich-tech technologies to solve the US energy crisis. ARPA-E, although legislation creating its existence has passed into law, has yet to be receive a budget as the proposal is not supported by the Bush administration. Chu's appointment increases the likelihood that the ARPA-E will finally be created.

The largest part of the Department of Energy's budget however, goes towards maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile. It is too early to say what the implications are for Chu's appointment to the long term future of the three main nuclear weapons labs at Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chu is likely to focus his attention on the Energy Department's core missions: basic science, nuclear weapons and cleaning up a nuclear-weapons manufacturing complex contaminated since the Cold War.

Paul Guinnessy

Related Physics Today articles Chu Named Berkeley Lab Director (August 2004)Politicians skeptical about need for ARPA-E (June 2006)'Gathering Storm' Report Urges Strong Federal Action to Save US Science and Technology Leadership December 2005Could 'green gasoline' displace ethanol as the biofuel of choice? December 2008Blueprint for new energy institute February 2007

Related Physics Today science articles Laser Beam Focus Forms Optical Trap for Neutral Atoms September 1986 New Mechanisms for Laser Cooling October 1990 Atom Interferometers Prove Their Worth in Atomic Measurements July 1995Work on Atom Trapping and Cooling Gets a Warm Reception in Stockholm December 1997 Atom Interferometer Measures G with Same Accuracy as Optical Devices November 1999How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist December 1999 (review by Steven Chu)

Related Web LInks Nobel Winner Chu To Land Top Energy Post (NPR)Obama Team Set on Environment New York TImesObama Picks Team to Guide Energy, Environment Agendas Wall Street JournalSteve Chu, Sixth Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Obama Said to Pick Nobel Laureate Chu as Energy Chief BloombergNobel Physicist Chosen To Be Energy Secretary Washington Post

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