Former Secretary Chu gave the opening keynote speaker at the Energy Summit in Santa Barbara last week. After four years at the head of the Department of Energy, the former Nobel Prize winner decided to go back to academics and research. Often caught in the cross-fire of Washington politics after the Solyndra debacle, he calmly kept acting on his firm belief that technology innovations can tackle humanity's biggest challenges.
This was the underlying theme during the keynote that he gave at the conference. The 4th edition of the Energy Summit hosted by the Institute for Energy Efficiency at UCSB. It was focused on materials for a sustainable future. Dr. Chu described some of the recent scientific breakthoughs in transportation, power electronics, photo-voltaics and energy storage. During the follow-up fire-side chat with Oracle's Chairman Jeff Henley, he called for increasing funding towards research. Yet, he warned that we can not separate innovation in materials from the constraints in manufacturing processes to create jobs in the US. A lot of the past research in materials was started here but ended up overseas for lack of pragmatism.
One rare exception is research in semiconductor that is changing the world of lighting the same way it changed the world of computing forty years ago. It was started at Bell Labs and it now continues in reserach centers such as CEEM at UCSB. Even the inventor of the blue laser, Shuji Nakamura, came from Japan to be a Professor at UCSB, an American University. Soora, a company he co-founded, is pushing the limit of LED lighting closer to the theoretical limit of 225 lumen per Watt. Their lights are above 100 lumens per Watt.
LED replacement light bulbs are already better than CFL. They are now coming to the mainstream. Cree, which was also part of the Summit, announced a 60W equivalent lightbulbs for less than $13. It is only a matter of years before most lights become LED lights. One bit of caution though from Cree and Soora is the very large number of types of lamps that need to be replaced: there are hundreds, from residential to industrial, from indoors to outdoors. Customers tend to be sensitive to color reendering, and this leads to interesting "spectrum engineering".
Other energy markets move slowly compared to the LED lighting market despite improvements in efficiency. Improvements in transportation, storage, etc. can be measured in single digits every year as opposed to the exponential rate of improvement in Information and Communication Technologies. The panelist on ICT had the most impressive results -- energy efficiency improvements of several orders of magnitude in the last decade --but they did not take into account the energy foot-print of semiconductor fabrication.
It is less clear whether semiconductor is more efficient than other energy and water hungry industry sectors when you look at the energy required for production of new devices. One light of hope, which the panelists shared, is that the tight interconnection made possible by the Internet can help other sectors gain in efficiencies. Representatives from Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison talked about their progress in smart grids and and renewable energy.
During the tenure of Secretary Chu , the power generation from renewable energy increased by a factor of two (picture below - courtesy of EIA). That is one of the take-aways he shared during the Summit. This is far from what is needed to curb climate change but Dr. Chu remained positive throughout the Summit about our ability to continue to innovate and find a solution. It is not the first time that humanity faces a daunting challenge.
Perhaps in his most inspiring speech of his visit in Santa Barbara, which is known worlwide for infrared materials and some of the latest breakthroughs in LED lighting, Dr. Steve Chu also talked candidly to an audience of students and faculty on campus about the challenges to lead the country's Department of Energy. He reminded the audience that Europe at the end of the nineteenth century faced famine if it could not find a way to produce artificial fertilizers.
Fritz Haber and Max Born received two different Nobel Prizes for their work related to the Born-Haber cycle that is critical the synthesize ammonia. That was a turning point that adressed the challenge of a huge population growth in the twentieth century. Between 1900 and 2000, the population exponentially grew from 1.65 billion people to close to more than 6 billion people.
Sometimes funny, sometimes heavy, his sharp mind never waved to make the point that we can make a difference and that science is worth investing in. "This is the first talk I am giving without a suit in four years" he mentioned after being introduced by fomer colleague at Bell Labs and Dean of the College of Engineering, Rod Alferness. Dr. Chu received the Nobel Prize for his work on cooling and trapping atoms with laser light while he was at Bell Labs in the seventies and eighties.
He reckoned that he was not pre-destined to it but worked hard and benefited from a stimulating environment. At Bell Labs he recalled the spirit of "constructive confrontation" about ideas that led to great inventions that changed our world like the transistor. That is what former Secretary Chu tried to infuse in Department of Energy by supporting the creation of the Adavanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E).
The program has received high praise to stimulate high-risk and high-reward projects that can make a difference like the Sun Shot initiative that aims to reduce not only the cost of solar panels but also the cost of installation. The goal is to reach $1 per Watt by 2020 for the total cost of installed solar installations. "At that point solar will be everhywhere, I mean everywhere", stated former Secretary Chu. ARPA-E will certainly be part of his legacy at the helm of the Department.
Dr. Chu also hinted on the challenges to work in Washington DC and to handle the failures that always come with trying new things. He recalled that there were more than a hundred of car companies in the US at one point. Only three manufacturers remain today. The skake-out has been brutal in the solar space, and the highly publicized brankruptcy has made headlines during the last Presidential campaign.
He hinted about the politics and the pressure of the media by telling the story of the satiric article that appeared in the Onion. Instead of losing his cool over a picture that represents him in bed with a solar panel after a "one-night-stand", he kept his sense of humor to make the bigger point. He posted on his facebook account: "While I'm not going to confirm or deny the charges specifically, I will say that clean, renewable solar power is a growing source of U.S. jobs and is becoming more and more affordable, so it's no surprise that lots of Americans are falling in love with solar."
Fighting climate change and keep the rise of the temperature under two degrees Celcius is the big challenge in the next decades. It is already too late to keep coral reefs but would keep the Earth from frequent cataclysms and a dangerous rise in water levels. A current global warming of 0.8-0.9 degrees can be seen everywhere in nature.
Fomer Secretary Chu ended with an inspiring quote on the race to the moon and a video on the Earth. at first, I thought he meant that if we can go to the moon, we can find a solution to global warming. But his point was more profound: "We came all the way to explore the moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth", quoting the Apollo 8 Astronaut Bill Anders. The next frontier of science and technology innovation is right here on Earth.