Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Steven Chu Is Obama's Choice For Energy Secretary

It will be announced today that Dr. Steven Chu, Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is President-elect Barack Obama's choice for Secretary of Energy. Dr. Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on laser cooling and trapping of atoms. Prior to becoming director of LBL, he was a professor at Stanford University and also worked at the former Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. For a more complete overview of his work, there is this autobiography or a rapidly-updated Wikipedia entry.

Reaching deep into The Oil Drum archives, commenter Step Back pointed to an audio presentation of a talk and interview with Dr. Chu in July 2005 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, CA.:

Here is one excerpt:

So, I would say among America's most serious concerns, you could consider national security, which is now intimately tied to energy security and access to energy, the long term economic competitiveness of the United States, and the dangers of global warming. And I believe that this energy issues is at the center of all of these concerns, and thus I think it's the single most important problem (societal problem) that science has to solve. If you compare it to other things we invest heavily in - for example,investments in medicine, cures of heart disease, stroke, cancer - if we don't solve those problems, it would be tragic. But life would go on as we know it. If we don't solve this problem, life could really change.

This could be a very interesting choice.

Edit: The video below was pointed to by ericy:

It is rather interesting choice and at least encouraging there was a scientist appointed as opposed to a politician (of course we are ALL politicians by nature...;-)

Also announced was appointment of energy 'czar', who used to head EPA: (from WSJ)

Democratic officials said. Carol Browner, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Clinton administration, will coordinate energy policy in the White House as a new "energy czar." Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley is to be named the chairwoman of Mr. Obama's Council on Environmental Quality. Mr. Obama also picked Lisa Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Democrats familiar with the choice. Ms. Jackson is currently chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine of and previously was commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. She has led her state's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and other sources. Ms. Jackson, who is from New Orleans, is the third African American to be named to Mr. Obama's cabinet. Mr. Chu, if confirmed, may be the first Nobel Laureate in the cabinet, but his role will likely be focused on the Energy Department's core science and nuclear weapons issues. Ms. Browner will bring renewable energy and energy efficiency policy into the White House.

Overlap between energy and the environment is both smart and necessary

I was hoping that the Department of Transportation would also be part of this grouping of cabinet posts.

I hope Dr. Chu spends some time with his fellow lab scientist David Fridley. The Berkeley lab has me a bit worried with their gung ho "let's crack open the termite gut and put it in a vat with sawdust" approach to solving the liquid fuels issue and taking on some hundreds of millions from BP to "get the job done!"

But yeah, a scientist is a good start.

Thanks for sharing the link to Fridley's website.

An approach that I had not read about before is to try and engineer plants with weaker cellulose that would be easier for enzymes to digest.

"one of the great scientific challenges of our lifetime".... "The current generation of schoolchildren will be the first to rely on cellulosic biofuels." says Martin Keller of ORNL.

The "recalcitrance" problem of cellulose remains the fad du jour (and for the foreseeable future).

The idea of "engineering plants with weaker cellulose" is insane beyond language.

If there's a potential for us to survive Peak Everything, we would have to recognize that the Earth is bountiful but not infinite.

Hundreds of millions of years of trial and error probably developed the proper level of cellulose for plants - certainly with greater skill than overly bright technicians of empire.

Elaine Ingham IN MY PROGRAM at Oregon State University in the early 1990s, we started testing the ecological impacts of most of the genetically engineered organisms being produced at that time. The question our lab was asked to address was, Did these engineered organisms have any impact out there in the real world?

The first fourteen species that we worked on - microorganisms, bacteria. and fungi - were organisms incapable of surviving in the natural environment. Putting them in the world would be like taking penguins from the South Pole and dropping them into the La Brea tar pits. Would there be any ecological effect if we dropped a penguin into the middle of the tar pit? Probably not; the impact would be rapidly absorbed by the system.

These first fourteen species of GMOs that we tested had a similarly negligible impact. On this basis. the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the regulatory agency that was determining U.S. policy on genetically engineered organisms, set a course that essentially said that a genetically engineered organism posed no greater risk to the environment than the parent organism does.

GMO number fifteen, however, was a very different story. Klebsiella planticola, the bacterium that is the parent organism of this new strain, lives in soils everywhere. It's one of the few truly universal species of bacteria, growing in the root systems of all plants and decomposing plant litter in every ecosystem in the world.

The genetic engineers took genetic material from another bacterium and inserted that trait in the GMO to allow Klebsiella planticola to produce alcohol. The aim of this genetic modification was to eliminate the burning of farm fields to rid them of plant matter after harvest. The idea was that you could, instead, rake up all that plant residue, put it in a bucket. and inoculate it with the engineered bacterium, and in about two weeks' time you would have a material that contained about 17 percent alcohol. The alcohol could be extracted and used for gasohol, for cleaning windows, or for myriad other uses: cooking with alcohol in Third World countries, for instance.

The genetic engineers thought this transformation would bring huge benefits. We would no longer have to burn fields, we would breathe better in the fall, and both the company and farmers would get a product that could be sold. There was actually a fourth win: the sludge at the bottom of the bucket is an organic fertilizer, and there are no waste products from that material.

So what's the problem? Suppose you're a farmer and you've got live, alcohol-producing Klebsiella planticola that you're going to spread on your fields (which might be easier than gathering up all the plant waste and putting it in buckets). Can it wash into the root systems of your plants? Most likely. Once it's there and growing in the root systems of your plants, it's producing alcohol. What level of alcohol is toxic to plants? It's one part per million. How much alcohol does this engineered organism produce? Seventeen parts per million. Very soon you will have drunk dead plants.

We did this experiment under controlled conditions in the laboratory because I wasn't going to take this kind of risk out in the field. We constructed three kinds of microcosms of a field, filled them with normal field soil as a growing medium, and planted wheat plants in the three separate systems - each consisting of multiple units - and put them in an incubator. In the first third of the units, we added only water. We added parent, non-GMO bacterium to the second group and the engineered Klebsiella planticola to the third.

About a week later, we walked into the laboratory, opened up the incubator, and said, "Oops, what did we do wrong?" Many of the plants were dead and were turning into slime on the surface of the soil. In all the units with just water in the system, the plants were doing okay. In those that had been inoculated with the parent Klebsiella planticola, the plants were even bigger, because increased nutrient cycling in the root system makes more nitrogen available, causing the plants to grow bigger. Clearly the parent organism was a benefit to the plant. But where the engineered bacterium was growing, all the plants were dead.

Later we tried this experiment using several different kinds of soils, but the result in every case was dead plants.

Take that information and extrapolate it to the real world. Given that the parent organism lives in the root systems of all plants, what's the logical outcome of releasing this organism into the natural environment?

Very possibly, we would have no terrestrial plants left. Some plants, such as riparian and wetland plants, have mechanisms for dealing with alcohol production in their root systems. But the logical extrapolation of that experiment is that we would lose terrestrial plants.

I have attended some of the United Nations biosafety protocol meetings. At the 1995 meeting in Madrid, the U.S. delegation was the strongest in saying, in essence, "Don't worry, be happy. Trust us. We don't need a biosafety protocol. Why would biotech companies ever do anything to harm people?"

To me, their words echoed those we've heard before from tobacco, pesticide, and fertilizer companies. At one such meeting, I related the story of Klebsiella planticola as an example of the lack of adequate testing for the ecological impact of genetically engineered organisms. The biotech companies object that it costs too 'much to do this kind of environmental testing. In my view, that's just hype, because I pointed out that our lab spent a very insignificant amount of money to do these simple experiments, especially considering that if this bacterium were let loose in the environment, we would have some very significant problems with our food supply.

No one in his or her right mind is going to test for the kind of risk Klebsiella planticola represents because once you release an organism, there is no way to get it back.

How far does a single-point inoculation of a genetically engineered organism spread in one year? An engineered Rhizobium bacterium that was released in Louisiana in the mid-1990s spread eleven miles per year and has by now dispersed across the North American continent.

At these United Nations meetings I warned that corn pollen is going to move a lot more than three feet away from the plant. "Oh no," said the biotechnology representatives present. "Corn pollen falls out of the air three feet from the plant." I would say, "Wait a minute, you've never heard of bees? How about birds? and insects? and wind "Oh no, it falls out of the air within three feet of the plant." Why do our bureaucrats choose to to believe these "scientists"? Just open any plant textbook and you find that corn pollen can be found in the Antarctic and the Arctic. But if you listen to Monsanto, corn pollen can't possibly be there. Armed with the knowledge of this peril, we need to convince members of Congress that appropriate ecological testing must be done prior to releasing GMOs into the environment. If this happens, it could help keep the problems that are already starting to occur from getting worse.

Addendum from Dave Blume:
I talk about the Klebsiella debacle in detail in my book, Alcohol Can Be A Gas, and it was actually a lot worse than this post relates. The original researchers threw out samples behind the lab and discovered the dead plants, got curious and discovered that the Klebsiella was alive and they had to dig up all the soil and incinerate it. Dr. Ingham subsequently elucidated the mechanism. I would add that the organism was engineered to eat cellulose and make alcohol. So in addition to the alcohol poisoning of the roots the bacteria was also eating the cellulosic root tips of the plants. I often tell this story and add that we really need to lock up all the genetic engineers in a very nice country club type prison since they have nearly ended life on earth several times already with bonehead projects like this.

Highly informative article. Please see the Campfire article: I believe this needs to be a full-fledged article, instead of just a comment to one, and I suggest that you submit a proposal as such to them.

Here here on the article submission suggestion. I've studied with Dr. Elaine Ingham and heard her tell this story. Alarming. Given the discussions about agriculture sustainable or not on TOD, I'd strongly suggest an interview article on Ingham's work. It's truly astounding and offers some clear alternatives to conventional fertilizer/"-cides" ag.

Elsewhere,though, in an article in EV world today, he states "that solar technologies like photovoltaics is (sic) ten times more efficient at converting sunlight into energy than are even the best plants and that a relatively small area of America's southwest could, if covered with solar PV or solar thermal installations, could provide all the nation's electric power needs."

So, while he clearly favors research in the cellulosic area, he seems to realize its limitations. He also recognizes that water could become a significant limiting factor in this area as global warming decreases snow pack, especially in areas like California.

And, yeh, he apparently believes in science, a revolutionary change from the current administration. I have been a bit taken aback by some of the other appointments, especially in the financial area, but these appointments in the energy/environment areas give me some hope.

I've talked with Chu on a number of occasions about peak oil, and although he does believe it's a serious issue, he falls back to using the infamous DOE graph that shows the peak in 2037 with a subsequent sharp decline matching an R/P=10 rate. I argued it was geophysically impossible, and turned to Khebab, at that time of, for help in integrating the area under the curve represented by that peak. It turns out to be 82%, which is absurd. One thing about Chu is that he is willing to listen to fact-based arguments and change his position, but I have had less luck in discussing the cellulosic biofuels issue with him. His apparent lack of understanding about the systemic, ecological consequences of what he asserts is a technological problem left us at odds. He even showed me his picture of a meeting with President Bush where Bush asked him if cellulosic biofuels were just a pipedream or not...and Chu responded that they were feasible. I think nature will prove him wrong. Nonetheless, I think he's a quantum leap above previous appointments, no pun intended...

As someone who didn't vote for Obama because he is too far to the right of me, but who was nonetheless glad to see him win, I've been disappointed but not surprised by his other appointee picks (not least Hilary, who favored invading Iraq).

The appointments announced today are the first ones that I actually found encouraging. Amazing that this will be the first Secretary of Energy who has been a professional scientist. (Previous secretaries include a guy from the coffee-business.)

It is refreshing to see a scientist for energy.

I looked earlier today for a discussion in DB on these moves. None. Nice to see the top post.

Maybe we'll see a biologist again in government in some of the other agencies-USDA, Interior- that sorely need it.

Thus far, the President-elect is surrounding himself with very strong people-hard to find yes men or women among them. Will be an interesting spring watching if he is strong enough himself to move forward. Some appear quite far from his campaign positions.

I looked earlier today for a discussion in DB on these moves. None.

You didn't look here, apparently. ;-)

Thx for the heads up. I missed it.

Maybe the first energy meeting won't have the vice president closing the door.

At EPA, Lisa Jackson chosen. Masters in Chemical Engineering. Right up RR's alley.

I agree with some other posters, that initial appointments were starting to look like Clinton Term 3. It's wait and see.

Base on the excerpt above, he is likely PO aware. However, I think he favors techno-triumphalism solutions over education of PO and force conservation. Maybe I'm reading into this too much.


No, not at all. In the youtube video that I linked in yesterday's drumbeat:

he showed the graph that shows energy consumption and happiness (from which one can conclude that we could cut back a lot). He also talked about energy efficiency of appliances.

Agree with ericy 100%, but even more:

1) Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory is the long-time home of Arther Rosenfeld and others who have done great work on energy efficiency over the years. LBL is one of the world's top centers for work on energy efficiency, and if somehow people haven't heard of Rosenfeld, it's worth reading that webpage and looking at some of his recent presentations.

2) Here's what Chu said of Rosenfeld when the latter got an Enrico Fermi award.

3) So, an ex-Bell Labs guy [we overlapped timewise, although I never met him] has been 20+ years in Northern California (which cares about energy efficiency) at Stanford and Berkeley (both of which are quite intense on the subject), and since 2004 has run the lab famous for its energy-efficiency work for decades...

I don't think we have to worry too much that he'll ignore efficinecy.

Is the position of Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for sale now? Perhaps we can get a collection going here at TheOildrum and put one of our own in charge.


What I want the most from Obama is for him to ask Tiger Woods to plow the White House lawn, then have Tiger move on to plowing golf courses. If this happens: then many positive changes for Optimal Overshoot Decline & Peak Outreach will automatically fall into their proper place.

Seriously, though, he really should put in an extensive organic garden in place of the White House lawn. Instead of the annual Easter Egg Roll, they can be looking for those eggs amongst the broccoli. Perhaps, also, they could have some free range white house chickens to lay the eggs for the annual event. Also, they could be creating some O fertilizer each day by having the White House Staff, including O and the children out there peeing on the garden.

How about, also, fitting the entire WH with compost toilets? Put in a grey water system, too. I'd also like to see the secret service out there picking fresh vegetables for the daily meals.

Maybe even Obama can get his exercise working in the garden? Remember Clinton's jogging track?

See Obama at work here:

I presume you have read "Farmer in Cheif" by Michael Pollan?

Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio," Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, said during the annual economic summit organized by Stanford University.

"The fear of radiation shouldn't even enter into this, he said. "Coal is very, very bad."

A very good choice

Chu was also involved with biofuels: Researchers such as Caltech's Simon have been analyzing microbes extracted from the termite's digestive system, looking for the enzymes that enable the bugs to turn wood cellulose into sugars.

TOD will be happy to know that Chu is peak oil aware

3 megabyte powerpoint from 2005

slide 15 and 16 show peak oil. "world production predicted to peak in 10-40 years" from 2004 when the stats referred to in the slide

"energy conservation can lengthen time by a factor of about 2 but the fundamental problem remains"

In 2007, 2008. Helios project replacing oil with solar and advanced biofuels

Steven Chu signed (Aug 2008) a nuclear energy position document along with the other directors of the national labs. The position was : A coherent long term nuclear power strategy is needed and nuclear power is a major and essential part of solving our energy problems.

-maximize current reactors (plant life extensions, uprate)
-deploy advanced light water reactors
-license Yucca mountain and research advanced fuel management
-aggressive R&D on advanced reactors

These are some excellant findings -thanks.

It looks like here is a Technocrat who will be able to see through the media rhetoric and understanding at a very real level the facts. I hope he has also read "The Sceptical Environmentalist" and I also hope he will not be blindsided by the politics of the job.

All in all an interesting choice that will likely have some very good spinnoffs.


I hope he has also read "The Sceptical Environmentalist"

Yes, well I hope he also reads about the errors in the book or can see through them with the power of his own reasoning. For instance, when Lomborg disputes Brown's and others assertions that we are approaching the physiological limit to rice yields, he says there are merely a lack of economic incentives to increase them. (Where do we often hear that?) But a type of graph we're all familiar with shows that there is good evidence to believe that rice yields are nearing their plateau and, as is often recognized here on TOD, sometimes economics bumps into physical limits:

Rice Yield

Then, of course, there is his approach to climate change, which is to minimize its impact despite overwhelming evidence of clear negative trends already in existence at the time of publishing of his book (and unfortunately gaining strength every year since).

If we were to follow Lomborg's advice, I think we would even sooner live in a thoroughly denuded and polluted planet.

His mistakes and incorrect conclusions are too numerous to list here, but they have been well-categorized at this site:

There have been several good articles at, detailing how terrible Lomborg is. He gives skeptics a bad name.

Because he promotes the notion of doing cost benifit analysis on environmental issues?

Perhaps it is because he just makes up stuff.

I can confirm from personal experience that Lomborg doesn't know what he's talking about. At one of his presentations a few years ago, I confronted him with his Skeptical Environmentalist claim that "species extinction is a problem, not a catastrophe." He still stood by it, so I described the appalling destruction of ocean ecosystems. He responded with, "Fishing down the food web just removes the oldest fish." My jaw literally dropped at the ignorance. Of course, it actually means removal of entire trophic levels from the food web, but Lomborg doesn't know what a trophic level is.

Nuclear power is not really even an energy "source" if you factor in having to baby sit the excrement for centuries and millennia.

I recommend the writing of Dr. John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., who served in the Manhattan Project at Berkeley and helped create the first visible quantities of Pu-239. Dr. Gofman was appointed an assistant director of the nearby (and more important) Livermore lab, and was somewhat forced out for having the nerve to say, publicly, that nuclear radiation releases were killing people. He wrote extensively over his long career, and recently passed away (essentially from old age).

Radioactivity and DNA are not compatible concepts.

The best "reactor" rises in the morning and sets in the evening. yes, it is not going to maintain the globalized overconsumption, but nothing (not even "free energy") can do that at this point. Power down is the only sensible approach, but I don't expect Obama & Co to admit that.

Nuclear power is not really even an energy "source" if you factor in having to baby sit the excrement for centuries and millennia.

Because the marginal energy consumption of a dry storage cask is quite large then?

Radioactivity and DNA are not compatible concepts.

Fine and well, address coal for its heavy metal content and radon that natural accumulates anywhere, as well as cosmic rays and the very K-40 in your bones, all which are orders of magnitude larger sources of ionizing radiation than nuclear power. We must ban intercontenental flights, medical radiography, and mountaineering as radioactive public health risks if we are to keep perspective.

I hope this bloke is both a tough cookie and a diplomat at the same time. In the Westminster parliamentary system (UK,Aus,NZ, Can) a legislator is appointed as energy minister and frankly most of them aren't up to the job. When Big Coal for example comes calling the minister sees the expensive suits and decides they are part of his peer group. Hence most energy ministers can't see much wrong with grain ethanol or clean coal.

OTOH a leaning towards geo-engineering solutions might not go over so well even if they probably make sense. If major corporations don't get a sympthetic ear from the energy secretary they will go straight to an influential legislator. The job specs must include people skills as well as technical savvy.

Good point Boof. I like having a tech expert in the position. Back in the day I liked Jimmy Carter for the same reason. Not to rain on everyone's parade, the Sec of En isn't going to decide our future energy policies. Neither is the president (poor ole Jimmy found that out the hard way). Policy changes only come with changes in the laws. And only the Congress can design and vote those changes into law. And Congress has been, and will continue to be, lead by the lobbies IMO. Now if PE Obama has the stomach for the fight he can use the bully pulpit to allow the words of folks like our new Sec of Energy to embarrass Congress into doing the right thing then we might see some real change. Time will tell.

We did not need a change in the law for EPA to decide to do noting about global warming. The President has great power to issue executive orders that do not require congressional approval. He can also choose to not enforce laws already on the books.

An excellent choice. Now this is change we can believe in!

I think many posters underestimate Obama. They see the charisma and clever politics and think that is all there is to him. And having endured eight years of anti intellectualism from Bush and the Republicans, it is hard to envision anything else.

Plus having a President that can speak comprehendable sentences and even write books is a shock.

I think he delights in detailed intellectual arguments especially when he has the final say on the outcome.

IMO few question Obama's intellect. What has been called into question is his actual agenda and his integrity.

IMO few question Obama's intellect. What has been called into question is his actual agenda and his integrity.

I find Obama intellectually disnonest and arrogant. His racialist approach to politicking and its success requires he become whitest of all possible presidents. Since no one knows what a white president is, other than the antithesis of Marion Barry ... he cannot know how to actually be one. He will try ... He will not take chances; he is and will be painfully and purposefully conventional. He is a collector rather than a director. He might be a better general manager for the Washington Redskins than owner Dan Snyder, but he cannot command; he has never done so and I don't think he knows how.

Obama is the unluckiest president the country has ever had. Climate change, Peak Resources and Credit Collapse; the Great Leveling (down to my level) is taking place. Obama's term will be framed by circumstances; he lacks both the personal or civic resources to address them preemptively. He will react ... as he has done though his career to date.

The fault lise partly in his stars; America elscted a scapegoat. Americans are pretty smart about some things; such as who gets blamed when things go awry. Obama's great flaw is to not see the peril of his predicament; a wiser man would have avoided the ambition. Obama is blinded by the trappings of the office - to its responsibilities.

Obama is painfully insecure. He surrounds himself with tokens of power and authority so that they reflect authority upon him ... he possesses no authority that is his own. He has a long record in pulbic office, four years as a US Senator. Senators have the statutory authority to challenge it; even a responsibility to do so! He did not even though the country was desperate for someone to step forward. The Senator went along with the Democrats like a good soldier; ws rulled by the Bush administration like the other Democrats. He did run for president. He never questioned Bush policies except around the periphery. He was simply another humanoid blob of goo taking up space in the Capital Building.

Obama failed with the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. The Obama leadership technique was on public display; his lack of personal or political risk taking and his opportunistic approval of the bailout after it was safe. He is another water carrier for big business. Expect policies to be made by lobbyists and tycoons as they are currently. Energy policy will be made by oil companies and electric utilities. Browner and Chu are window dressing, like Paul Volcker.

The best thing about Obama is he is not a crook; he said so himself this morning;

Very reassuring!

National labs are profoundly energy wasteful and we see this guy is head of one. He is so compromised by his energy consumer experience that I doubt we will see anything useful. It will at least be fun to watch a big time scientist twist the contradictions of his behavior and rhetoric into a pretzel. It'll give me small satisfaction to know that I am smarter than a Nobel Prize winner.

I'm pleased to see an intelligent PO-aware scientist who is also considered an effective administrator as the candidate for Energy Secretary; those two qualities normally add up to unity. In his case, both factors appear to approach unity. Now how this role will be balanced with Energy Czar remains to be seen...

I'm sure this brings a tear of joy to the eyes of those that push the technology Merry-Go-Round on a daily basis. He comes from a hugely wasteful organization, into another hugely wasteful organization (the fed) and his ideology is more of the same. Technology will save us all...just keep those government research dollars coming boy's....thou shall worship the holy slide rule...all is well.

Unless he has the backbone to tell the big O to Power Down, on a rapid and massive basis, he will be riding his rocket into the sun. I doubt he has.

Power Down.

I did a background study on Chu a while back (long before this Obama nomination). If memory serves, Chu comes from a family of geniuses. One of his brothers became a famous doctor and the other a famous lawyer. Steve Chu decided to go into the political end of science by managing a national lab. However, I suspect he still remembers his basic laws of thermodynamics. IIRC he is very PO aware.

One more audio recording with Dr. Chu, a press conference recording originally via Australia's ABC Radio, can be found at (12 min).

What we need is for Obama to dive deep into the abysses of the government and release all the information pertaining to all black projects that have been running for the last 50+ years.

Unfortunately, even if we pulled anti-gravity or ZPE out of our hats, the potential dangers of such could outweigh the benefits. If you think digging a 2 mile wide mile deep hole in search of copper is bad, imagine how far we'd be digging if we had machines that required no external fuel source! And imagine the demand for minerals and ores if we did have a "free energy" source! My god... I think that's precisely why the public isnt allowed to know about advanced energy technologies. Energy isnt the real issue. The real issue is there are about 50 ores and minerals that are requiring more and more tons of dirt to be processed in order to extract them. Until we can find a way to replace them all using nothing but carbon and silicon, they're going to make us wait.

Are you kidding?

If we had gob-loads of free energy it would probably be more efficient to just dig straight down to some magma and plasma-vaporise the stuff into a ginormous mass-spectrometer-type atom seperator.

All the gold you could eat.

And criss-cross the planet with a vast dense network of subterranean supersonic mag-lev trains (in vacuum tubes, bien sur).

You should read more sci-fi ;)

Do keep in mind that anybody's city dump is the richest copper, aluminum, iron etc ore on the planet.

And with 'unlimited (economically free) energy' one could re-process it 'economically'. If the 'big concern' is global warming - unlimited cheap energy would also mean increased heat within the atmosphere as the energy would be converted into 'work' as we are used to it.

Not to mention the effective weapon such devices/methods would be.

Aluminium is 8% of the Earths crust; there's no need to go rumaging around in dumps for it.

Hurray! A physicist in a position dealing with national energy issues, at last! And one with Stanford connections, as well! I wish him all the best, and know that the U. S. will get onto a better energy path with Obama in the White House and Chu as Energy Secretary.

Phy6 (a Stanford-educated physicist!)

3 centigrade degrees = 5.4 Fahrenheit degrees, not 11 degrees Fahrenheit.

Steven Chu interview
“Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?
Absolutely. Right now about 20 percent of our power comes from nuclear; there have been no new nuclear plants built since the early '70s.”

Unfortunately the DOE chief serves as an accountant, not an engineer or scientist. The budget is only $25 billion, spent largely on military issues.

Our energy program is determined by a group of gray haired law school graduates in Washington called Congress.

If we gave him $150 billion per year for the next ten years with instructions to solve the world’s energy problems, I believe he could do it.

It will be very interesting to see which way they move with the nuclear non-destructive and destructive testing program.

Another key area will be the Yucca Mountain project. If they cancel it, I would buy stock in utilities because Uncle Sam is going to have to pay back billions of dollars to them.

To echo what a lot of people have been saying, under the current system the choice of power generation is dictated by the states and also the EPA to a small extent. For you "smart-grid" supporters, a state doesn't like not being in control of its power. For example no way in...would the state of Georgia trust the states in the windy section of the US for power. Its too important for a state economy to rely on other sections of the country for power. The same problem exists with a renewable mandate, the east coast would be disproportionately screwed by any percentage law (unless they pretended that nuclear was renewable).

To institute any major changes in electric generation requires a massive revamping of the system which I don't believe is politically acceptable yet.

Kind of crazy how only 2 of the last 6 Energy Secretaries had engineering degrees. Kind of makes you wonder what they actually do.

Chu is in favour of deep burn technology and doesn't think Yucca mountain is needed:

Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that's still a long time, it's in the realm that we can monitor - we don't need Yucca Mountain.

Yucca mountain isn't needed because dry cask storage is cheap and good enough for several centuries. It was a bad idea from the start.

It looks like Chu agrees with you! - but what does he know, he is only a noble prize winner in a relevant discipline! ;-)

Another key area will be the Yucca Mountain project. If they cancel it, I would buy stock in utilities because Uncle Sam is going to have to pay back billions of dollars to them.

You seem to labor under the mistaken believe that the US of A operates under the rule of law.

In tough budget times, the Sovereign will do what it wants - in the interest of national security of course.

oops...errant comment hopefully deleted.

If folks still don't believe that Obama can change things just consider this appointment with Bush's first Sec of Energy Spencer Abraham. Spence had only two jobs before becoming Sec of Energy. He served one term as senator from Michigan. The other was as an employee of the Michigan Republican Party. Obama's choice won a Nobel Prize in physics. I wonder how much Chu will have to dumb down his testimony to congressional committees so the GOP can sort of understand what he says?[%3B%23%20%20%20%0A

"two physicists, two chemists, a biomedical researcher, a biomedical
engineer, a geologist, and a microbiologist"

That's out of both the Senate and House. There's not many on either side who accept the science if it doesn't help them gain more power or weaken others. My personal favorite is when one of these clowns talks about the "scientific consensus" on the causes of global warming and acts like they know whats going to happen in 100 years. I'm a believer that green house gases are a major contributor but I also know I could easily be wrong.

Please keep in mind that there's nothing fundamentally different between climate change prediction software and the proprietary trading models of the now-extinct investment banks.

"Please keep in mind that there's nothing fundamentally different between climate change prediction software and the proprietary trading models of the now-extinct investment banks."

Because one of them is based on physics, the other isn't. About the only similarity is that they often make multiple runs and characterize the ensemble of results.

See FAQ on climate models.

or see more discussion of different kinds of simulations, including why finance models aren't physics models.

[I used to design and help sell supercomputers to climate folks, Wall Street financial modelers, petroleum geoscientists, car & airplane designers. Exactly one of these groups *doesn't* use physics-based models.]

So, I'm curious, as a hobby is tracking down sources of misinformation - can you say where you got this idea?

Ok, here is your source of misinformation. Saying something relies on physics and the other thing doesn't mean that they are fundamentally different. I have experience running engineering software that costs millions and can take days to run depending on the simulation. I have known PhD engineers who have visited government climate computational centers and returned very skeptical.

In any model you take empirical data from all the known variables and then use it to simulate the future while carrying through the statistical uncertainty of the empirical data you are using. If you know everything about your control system, you can make a very accurate prediction. If not, the results may get very fuzzy. Every good model has to be validated by experimental results. That is somewhat impossible with climate change because of the timescale of the predictions and lack of historical data. If you try to go for a short-term validation, you get questionable results every time (just ask the weather channel).

You would think the dominating variable for global warming is the sun and the Earth's orbit. Could you get accurate results assuming a constant heat source? Possibly, I don't know much about either. What exactly are the variables in weather? Does a cooling tower or a man-made lake contribute to weather patterns? Do airplanes and spacecraft mess with the atmosphere? I have no idea but I'll leave you with this:

In elementary school I learned that we can use the scientific method to isolate variables to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

In high school I learned that if we can't isolate all the variables, we can use statistics to make predictions with a certain level of confidence.

In college I learned that you can play around with those statistics to make any prediction you want.
More people eat ice cream in the summer. More shark attacks happen in the summer. Sharks like ice cream.

Now does it make sense to me that more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would increase the Earth's temperature, absolutely. But John tell me if you think there are more variables and feedback mechanisms in the weather or in the stock market? I know that I have no idea and I doubt many of the people developing weather models do either. I also know that researchers in any field always have a financial incentive to show their work in the best (or worst) possible light. If you are selling computers to them, so do you. So please everyone, don't be pricks to people who aren't totally convinced with the mainstream views.


You have *very* strong opinions about what other people don't know, and you've repeated a lot of the same errors discussed many times elsewhere.

You keep equating climate models to statistical models.

You mix weather & climate.

Please read the URLs I mentioned, because it makes no sense to repeat all the same old discussions here again.

Among other things, they explain why engineers (and others) sometimes gets confused because they have experience with one kind of simulation, and then over-generalize. Amongst the URLs is mentioned a long discussion with chemist, who was *sure* of the same things you are, and when it was explained to him how climate models weren't like (in his case) protein-folding, light dawned. Also mentioned is a guy from the financial services industry who had the same opinion.

This is a constructive comment, really: you might look at the Dunning-Kruger Effect and think whether or not it applies.

My suggestion is to take the discussion to RC FAQ, which discusses this topic, with inputs from many knowledgable people.

The very first topic is "What is the difference between a physics-based model and a statistical model?"

Well since I'm superior to you and everyone else, let me teach you a lesson in kiddy modeling.

Step 1: Construct Model
Step 2: Validate Model
Step 3: Produce Prediction

Whether its based on physics or statistics doesn't matter. Even to separate the two is questionable at the least. I'm not sure what exactly entails "physics" to everyone but many of the mechanisms of heat transfer and especially transport such as turbulent flow and mixing are governed by statistical observations.

My main beef with the climate models is Step 2, because it's impossible to validate without looking at long term data. Models based on "physics" have to be validated because a lot of times you will find that either not all the physics are included, or some of the physics are treated incorrectly. The more variables involved, the more scrutiny the validation needs.

Instead of attacking me personally, you should be telling me, yes but they are the best models we have right now. They appear to be correct because the Earth is warming and because of the implications of their predictions, we can't afford to wait for the models to be validated to the degree that makes all of the scientific community happy.

Once again, for anyone who wants to learn about this topic from people who actually know something about it:

a) Read RC FAQ on models", including some of the referenced posts.

b) That thread is still (slightly) active, so comments can be posted. I'd suggest the anonymous "TheDude" continue this there, where there is substantial expert knowledge, not in a thread about Steven Chu.

c) Also, although a little old, I'd recommend:
William J. Kaufmann III, Larry L. Smarr. Supercomputing and the Transformation of Science, Scientific American Library, W. H. Freeman and Company, 1993. ISBN 0-7167-5038-4.
You can get a used one for a few dollars from Amazon - it's a beautiful book, and although I haven't seen Larry for years, he knows this turf quite well, and much of what they say is still relevant, although computers have gotten much faster.

Unfortunately, as with all potential solutions, scale kills. In terms of nuclear power, for every 1% of oil lost (~ 200k barrels/day), we will need to build 13 to 15 1 GW nuclear power plants/year to make up for it (That's in strict BTU terms only.) That's faster than 1 per month & we've never built anything on that scale. And supplying that many reactors w/fuel will be something else. As with natural gas, when everyone climbs into the same energy lifeboat, suddenly it does not look so safe. As a result, I think that nuclear will be a moderate part of an interim solution, but it won't be a large part of the long-term solution unless something like pebble bed thorium breeders are developed, and that's going to take some serious work.

By the way, does anyone know the EROEI difference between CANDU and standard enriched high-pressure reactors? Someone commented once on TheOilDrum that up to 80% of the energy embodied in a nuclear reactor is in the enrichment process. The statement was a little ambiguous as to whether it applied to the entire power plant or just the fuel. However, it its true, then CANDU's might give a better EROEI as well as expand the fuel supply. The figures I’ve seen from about 4 years ago showed a 70-year supply at the 04’ burn rate (anyone have more recent/better data?) See Dr. Hall's "The Energy Return of Nuclear Power (EROI on the Web-Part 4)" @

As I look at what we have in terms of waste, Jerry Brown's much-lambasted phrase "Spaceship Earth" comes floating back (Kenneth Boulding said it first, it turns out). If you look at it like a spacecraft design problem, what do we have to work with? We've got:

1) Solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, ocean thermal, and other more exotic renewables
2) Not quite so renewable nuclear

but also:

3) Waste heat from power plants,
4) Around 100 million gallons of poo/day, and
5) Around 5 1/2 Lbs of trash pppd, of which around 50% is paper or cellulose-based

So in addition to the usual suspects in (1) & (2), my vote goes to combining the waste streams to produce energy and nutrients for farming because it creates a closed cycle that reduces waste and increasing efficiency. Unless we stop and let about 3 to 5 billion people off the planet, I don't see how we can make it without utilizing our waste streams.

Someone commented once on TheOilDrum that up to 80% of the energy embodied in a nuclear reactor is in the enrichment process. The statement was a little ambiguous as to whether it applied to the entire power plant or just the fuel.

Its only the fuel, you dont have to enrich any of the isotopes in power plant construction generally. Its also highly dependant on the enrichment process used. Gasseous diffusion is 50 times as energy intensive as centrifuge enrichment for example. Another problem is that not all energy is the same when discussing economic competitiveness. The value of energy in uncombusted gasoline is rated as much higher than the value of energy from flared natural gas.

Not quite so renewable nuclear

Its not exactly a constraint that nuclear fuel is finite, considering how vast the resource is... millions of years worth of nuclear fuel implies we'll figure out a better solution sometime before it runs out.

3) Waste heat from power plants

A serious concern some centuries in the future when global power production is ten thousand times what it is today. As of now, its less than .01% of the energy of the solar flux. CO2 emissions are a far larger concern.

We do have millions of years of safe nuclear power - as long as the "reactor" is that fusion power source 93 million miles away.

If one is talking about mining uranium and fissioning it to boil water to spin a turbine, estimates vary but a few decades (possibly slightly more) is a more realistic estimate.

Peak Uranium.

Ask the Navajo uranium miners about the health impacts of digging this stuff out of the Earth where it is currently encapsulated through natural geologic processes. Your great-great-great-great-great grandchildren need us to keep this out of the biosphere.

There would be slightly longer estimates for nuclear fission power if the irradiated fuel rods are "reprocessed" -- dropped in nitric acid to extract the unfissioned U and the created Pu. But this would also put nuclear weapons material into widespread commerce, necessitating a totalitarian police state that did not bother with such antiquated notions as civil liberties and democracy. See the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's 1975 "Barton Report," which predicted the suspension of civil liberties by a nuclearized economy.

No thanks.

If one is talking about mining uranium and fissioning it to boil water to spin a turbine, estimates vary but a few decades (possibly slightly more) is a more realistic estimate.

No. The estimates you're thinking of are of reasonably assured resources at a set price. For a log normal distributed element such as uranium, you can arbitrarily raise the price several fold and open up thousands of times the resources.

There would be slightly longer estimates for nuclear fission power if the irradiated fuel rods are "reprocessed" -- dropped in nitric acid to extract the unfissioned U and the created Pu. But this would also put nuclear weapons material into widespread commerce, necessitating a totalitarian police state that did not bother with such antiquated notions as civil liberties and democracy.

While France may not be the shining light of a perfect society, I'd hardly suggest that it's a totalitarian police state. Never mind that PUREX is unnecissary (and undesirable) for nuclear fuel cycles.

The evidence keeps piling up that if the US doesn't take the lead in climate policy no-one will. Just today

Europe - will allow up to 70% offsets in its carbon trading scheme. In other words cheat.
Australia -will build new coal railways and pour millions of tonnes of concrete as part of its fiscal stimulus package.

If there is any carbon slowdown it will be due to recession, depletion or the US lead.

Australia -will build new coal railways and pour millions of tonnes of concrete as part of its fiscal stimulus package.

Almost half the Au$1.2bn 'pump-priming' the Kevin (from Queensland) has announced will be spent in the Hunter Valley, improving capacity between the mines and the docks. This didn't surprise me a whole lot (and seems incredibly stupid, since commodity prices are down for the foreseeable future, and Rio Tinto just announced 14,000 layoffs). What did surprise me is that spending on rail (although insufficient) is more than spending on roads! This has to be a first!

Lets not forget that Power Stations will be given CO2 tickets-to-ride, while wind turbine manufacturers in the same town is about to cut staff.
Peter Garrett. Every performance a sell-out.

I was pleasantly surprised at Obama's choice of Mario Molina to his transition team -- he's in charge of all things science and ecology.

These appointments are strong signals that the era of faith-based policymaking is over.

Very very coooooool! Good choice mr Obama!!!

This gave me a good fealing!

Maybe we can get to the new energy paradigm much faster and avoid climate catastrophy and resource wars. Let this guy administer the funds that currently goes to bail out wall street firms. Let him lead paralelle manhatten-project style research programs in renewable energy, energy infrastructure, energy efficency, transportation electrification etc, it will create both jobs and tech-breakhtroughs.