Steven Chu is currently the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Physics & Professor of Molecular & Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. You might know him better as the former U.S. Secretary of Energy, the first scientist to hold a Cabinet position.
He was also the director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Professor of Physics and Molecular Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, and head of the Quantum Electronics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories.
His research includes optical nanoparticle probes and imaging methods for applications in biology and biomedicine and new approaches in lithium ion batteries, air filtration, and other nanotechnology applications.
Along with two colleagues, Chu won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.”
Below is an excerpt from the conversation:
Roque Calvo: What part is electrochemistry going to play in energy production?
Steven Chu: I’ve been going around giving talks for the last two years saying that electrochemistry’s about to see a real resurgence because if you look over the horizon, electricity’s going to cost three cents, then two cents, and even less per kilowatt hour. At two cents per kilowatt hour, all of a sudden electrochemistry becomes something very real. There are ways you can have clean energy powering a mixture of wind, hydro, sun, pump water source, all sorts of things, so you can run an electrochemical plant 24/7. Things are wide open now. Renewable electricity can be cheap at certain times and if you have the right kind of storage to keep an electrochemical plant going 24/7, then you’re in a different ballgame. To me, that’s very exciting because that means a new world is going to open up.
RC: Are you optimistic about the future of energy?
SC: I think as a scientist, you have to be optimistic because usually what you’re doing is trying to shoot for the moon. My optimism comes from the fact that you’ve got a whole bunch of very smart people who are focused on all of the technical problems in the world, including sustainability, energy, and climate change. These researchers are very motivated, and I just hope that someday soon the U.S. federal government goes back to supporting this kind of work.
RC: You were awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.” Tell us about that work.
SC: I kind of independently discovered a proposal that had been around for a while. It was a very famous paper that I stumbled upon in ’83. I went to my director at Bell Labs and said, “I think this is going to work. It’s so simple, it’s got to work.” Within 12 months from the time I had the idea, I actually sat down and wrote the first draft of the so-called “optical molasses paper,” the three-dimensional cooling that got atoms down below a quarter of a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero. A year later we trapped atoms. A year after that we got a much better combined, cooled atom trap. And in those three years, especially the last trap, the so-called “magneto-optic trap,” that brought laser cooling and trapping to the world.
RC: How did you become U.S. Secretary of Energy?
SC: In mid-November I got a phone call saying the President-elect would like to talk to me about an important job, so I said, “How important?” When they said Secretary of Energy, I said, “Okay, I might consider that one.” So I flew to Chicago and talked to [Obama] one-on-one for about an hour. I came away thinking that I really liked this guy. We see eye to eye on many things, most things regarding energy. I told my wife, “If he asks me, I’ll say yes.” So I went to Washington and tried to help the President develop clean energy solutions and a lot of it worked. Now the current administration is trying to undo most of it, but some of it can’t be undone.