Energy Secretary Chu and the Toll of Silly Physics

Many of us had just the grandest time conducting worthless research for the old monopolistic phone companies.  Dr. Steven Chu, our Secretary of Energy was one of the typical products of that era of unfocused industrial research.  He nurtured his career in what had become the most arrogant and unfocused lab of them all, Bell Laboratories.   If you landed one of those storied jobs as a newly minted Member of Technical Staff, you could expect to conduct research indistinguishable from that of any academic scientist supported by government agencies like the National Science Foundation. That a once glorious Bell Labs is now a rotting corpse inside the French-owned Alcatel indicates how far the laboratory has fallen from its halcyon days, when giants like John Bardeen, Claude Shannon and William Shockley walked the corridors.

The measure of worth of a Bell Labs scientist in the Chu era was unrelated to the discovery or development of any practical technology, patent or invention.  Rather, citations, invited conference talks and publications in certain select journals were how the value of your research was measured in yearly reviews. The main aim of the labs' researchers was to foster relations with the academic scientific world, so that the new Ph.D. graduates would come to Bell Labs to replace someone else who was leaving to accept a tenured university post. This is the revolving door that pushed Chu to Stanford and then Berkeley, to continue his pursuit of academic excellence.

Sometimes research could be first class.  Steven Chu and his colleagues masterfully controlled a half dozen laser sources to essentially freeze the motion of atoms. Very nice work indeed, paid for by the aggregated pennies collected from grandma's analog phone bill. The work, which never helped grandma or improved her phone service, won Dr. Chu and others the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997.

Now, there are Nobel Prize winners and there are Nobel Prize winners.  Steven Chu should not be confused with the likes of monumental geniuses like Hans Bethe, a man who identified the energy producing cycles in the sun, and then lead America's greatest theoretical physicists in the building of the atomic bomb.  Or with Enrico Fermi, who not only invented a class of quantum statistics but also engineered the first sustained and controlled nuclear reaction. 

The point of these comparisons is not to denigrate our Energy Secretary, because figures like of Bethe and Fermi tower above us like gods in world of physics.  But let the record show, there was a time when even theoretical physicists were willing and able to marshal their talents to build real things, especially when national survival was at stake.  Bell Labs in the 1970's and beyond could not have cared less about real things. 

Andrew Grove, a founder and legendary CEO of Intel, once remarked that while his company was forced to double the speed of its microprocessors every eighteen months, the phone companies were content to double the performance of their networks once every hundred years.  The dismal comparison is the result of the research focus of staff scientists like Dr. Chu. 

Given our current national energy crisis, we have never been more in need of grown-ups in charge of energy policy.  You could even make the argument that next to the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy is now the most important Department of all.  But in an age when our security and energy access are intertwined as never before, we have Dr. Chu, focused like a laser beam of the chimera of global warming, not on oil and gas extraction.  Focused on limiting coal mining not on advancing its cleaner embodiments.   For Chu, apparently, the less we do to affect the earth the better. For Chu our desire for fossil fuels and the life styles they permit is almost like a fetish. "The American people...  just like your teenage kids, aren't acting in a way that they should act."

Well, how should we act?  We should act as reality dictates, and energy realities are stark and unforgiving.  Almost every energy expert, from Michael Economides to Boone Pickens to Sarah Palin, knows that by 2030 global energy demand, driven by population growth and higher standards of living, will increase by 50%.  Unfortunately, the sources that contribute to the global energy mix are unlikely to change much no matter how much we dream it to be otherwise.  Oil, gas and coal contribute close to 90% to the total mix today and they'll be close to 90% a scant 20 years hence.

There are two key reasons for this brutal energy truth: a small starting base for alternative energy, and the very high energy density of hydrocarbons. According to the Energy Information Administration (probably the only part of Jimmy Carter's DoE worth preserving), only 3.1% of our electricity comes for alternative sources, including wind and solar. When you start from such a small base, facing headwinds of growing global demand, even spectacular advances in technology won't make very dramatic dents in fractional contribution.  For an even more sobering historical energy perspective it's worthwhile listening to Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba. Smil explains that it typically takes at least 50 years before a new energy source (whether it's oil, natural gas, or nuclear) contributes even a 10% share to the energy pie chart.

Energy density is just as unforgiving a parameter.  Nature has endowed hydrocarbons with high energy content in very small volumes.  When you look at the energy contained in a tank of gasoline and compare it to the tons of batteries that would be required to match its energy content an environmental radical should get quite depressed.  The same energy density dictates that huge swaths of land need to be dedicated for energy production from solar and wind, compared to the relatively minuscule footprints required for energy production from fossil fuels.

At the December 2008 Democratic Convention, Chu's future boss made the absurd claim that if elected he would guarantee that the United States would be energy independent in ten years.  We're approaching Obama's one-year anniversary.  Do you think that we're 10% towards energy independence?  Neither do I.  And we never will be without developing a lot more of our own oil, gas and coal.  And as long as Dr. Steven Chu is in charge of the DoE and Obama is our President that will never happen.

Claude can be reached at csandroff@gmail.com
Many of us had just the grandest time conducting worthless research for the old monopolistic phone companies.  Dr. Steven Chu, our Secretary of Energy was one of the typical products of that era of unfocused industrial research.  He nurtured his career in what had become the most arrogant and unfocused lab of them all, Bell Laboratories.   If you landed one of those storied jobs as a newly minted Member of Technical Staff, you could expect to conduct research indistinguishable from that of any academic scientist supported by government agencies like the National Science Foundation. That a once glorious Bell Labs is now a rotting corpse inside the French-owned Alcatel indicates how far the laboratory has fallen from its halcyon days, when giants like John Bardeen, Claude Shannon and William Shockley walked the corridors.

The measure of worth of a Bell Labs scientist in the Chu era was unrelated to the discovery or development of any practical technology, patent or invention.  Rather, citations, invited conference talks and publications in certain select journals were how the value of your research was measured in yearly reviews. The main aim of the labs' researchers was to foster relations with the academic scientific world, so that the new Ph.D. graduates would come to Bell Labs to replace someone else who was leaving to accept a tenured university post. This is the revolving door that pushed Chu to Stanford and then Berkeley, to continue his pursuit of academic excellence.

Sometimes research could be first class.  Steven Chu and his colleagues masterfully controlled a half dozen laser sources to essentially freeze the motion of atoms. Very nice work indeed, paid for by the aggregated pennies collected from grandma's analog phone bill. The work, which never helped grandma or improved her phone service, won Dr. Chu and others the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997.

Now, there are Nobel Prize winners and there are Nobel Prize winners.  Steven Chu should not be confused with the likes of monumental geniuses like Hans Bethe, a man who identified the energy producing cycles in the sun, and then lead America's greatest theoretical physicists in the building of the atomic bomb.  Or with Enrico Fermi, who not only invented a class of quantum statistics but also engineered the first sustained and controlled nuclear reaction. 

The point of these comparisons is not to denigrate our Energy Secretary, because figures like of Bethe and Fermi tower above us like gods in world of physics.  But let the record show, there was a time when even theoretical physicists were willing and able to marshal their talents to build real things, especially when national survival was at stake.  Bell Labs in the 1970's and beyond could not have cared less about real things. 

Andrew Grove, a founder and legendary CEO of Intel, once remarked that while his company was forced to double the speed of its microprocessors every eighteen months, the phone companies were content to double the performance of their networks once every hundred years.  The dismal comparison is the result of the research focus of staff scientists like Dr. Chu. 

Given our current national energy crisis, we have never been more in need of grown-ups in charge of energy policy.  You could even make the argument that next to the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy is now the most important Department of all.  But in an age when our security and energy access are intertwined as never before, we have Dr. Chu, focused like a laser beam of the chimera of global warming, not on oil and gas extraction.  Focused on limiting coal mining not on advancing its cleaner embodiments.   For Chu, apparently, the less we do to affect the earth the better. For Chu our desire for fossil fuels and the life styles they permit is almost like a fetish. "The American people...  just like your teenage kids, aren't acting in a way that they should act."

Well, how should we act?  We should act as reality dictates, and energy realities are stark and unforgiving.  Almost every energy expert, from Michael Economides to Boone Pickens to Sarah Palin, knows that by 2030 global energy demand, driven by population growth and higher standards of living, will increase by 50%.  Unfortunately, the sources that contribute to the global energy mix are unlikely to change much no matter how much we dream it to be otherwise.  Oil, gas and coal contribute close to 90% to the total mix today and they'll be close to 90% a scant 20 years hence.

There are two key reasons for this brutal energy truth: a small starting base for alternative energy, and the very high energy density of hydrocarbons. According to the Energy Information Administration (probably the only part of Jimmy Carter's DoE worth preserving), only 3.1% of our electricity comes for alternative sources, including wind and solar. When you start from such a small base, facing headwinds of growing global demand, even spectacular advances in technology won't make very dramatic dents in fractional contribution.  For an even more sobering historical energy perspective it's worthwhile listening to Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba. Smil explains that it typically takes at least 50 years before a new energy source (whether it's oil, natural gas, or nuclear) contributes even a 10% share to the energy pie chart.

Energy density is just as unforgiving a parameter.  Nature has endowed hydrocarbons with high energy content in very small volumes.  When you look at the energy contained in a tank of gasoline and compare it to the tons of batteries that would be required to match its energy content an environmental radical should get quite depressed.  The same energy density dictates that huge swaths of land need to be dedicated for energy production from solar and wind, compared to the relatively minuscule footprints required for energy production from fossil fuels.

At the December 2008 Democratic Convention, Chu's future boss made the absurd claim that if elected he would guarantee that the United States would be energy independent in ten years.  We're approaching Obama's one-year anniversary.  Do you think that we're 10% towards energy independence?  Neither do I.  And we never will be without developing a lot more of our own oil, gas and coal.  And as long as Dr. Steven Chu is in charge of the DoE and Obama is our President that will never happen.

Claude can be reached at csandroff@gmail.com