Photograph by Becky Hale/National Geographic Society
National Geographic magazine
Published March 2, 2009
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu has always had wide-ranging research interests. Before President Obama tapped him to be his energy secretary, Chu was the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. With funding from the Department of Energy and a major grant from BP, the laboratory's scientists are working to transform renewable-energy technologies, aiming to slash the price of solar power and make biofuels kinder to the planet. With such breakthroughs, they hope to help wean the world off fossil fuels—and help protect the global climate.
Chu spoke with noted science writer Michelle Nijhuis recently for National Geographic's upcoming special issue on energy (available for preorder), out this month. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
How has your switch from research to politics changed your perspective on the energy challenge?
It really hasn't changed my thinking that much. The President has made it very clear that science is science, and many of the issues we face need science and technology solutions.
You've said we must develop an inexpensive way to capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. But last year, the Department of Energy scaled back FutureGen, a major capture-and-storage demonstration project. How do you plan to accelerate the development of these technologies?
The United States should be taking a leadership position in developing technologies for all types of carbon capture. We're certainly going to review the FutureGen project, and there are other technologies that we have to start looking at.
Europe has something on the order of ten carbon-capture projects, and China wants to develop its own projects. In the United States there's been this thinking that these other efforts don't really exist. It behooves all of us—Europe, Asia, the United States—to say, OK, there's at least a half dozen technologies that have to be looked at, because we don't really know which is superior.
Would you rather see nuclear reactors constructed than more coal-fired power plants?
Yes. I think nuclear power has its problems: We haven't solved the long-term storage problems, and we have to be very cognizant of the proliferation problem. But the safety is better and will continue to get better, and nuclear power is far better for climate than coal.
Can the technologies you're talking about be developed fast enough to head off some of the worst effects of climate change?
Energy efficiency can be improved very quickly. Better insulation standards for buildings can be had instantly. Appliance standards, ka-BOOM, can be had right away. And I think in five to ten years, we can go to fuels made from grasses and biowaste.
But it will take time to learn how to capture carbon. It will take time to develop a new generation of solar power technology.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next four years?
The Department of Energy is the biggest supporter of the physical sciences in the United States, but it also has a mission to take what is developed in national labs and universities and transfer this knowledge to applied research—research that will lead to really new ideas about sources of energy and ways of using our energy more efficiently.
So that's one of the things the Department of Energy will be focusing on—how do we make that transition?
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