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Steven Chu

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy

United States Department of Energy

March 8, 2021
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Ep 1: Steven Chu - Former U.S. Secretary of Energy
00:00 / 01:04

Bret Kugelmass
So we are kicking off the Energy Impact Podcast with Dr. Steven Chu, who is a former US Secretary of Energy, a professor of physics at Stanford. And oh, yeah, he won a Nobel Prize in Physics. Dr. Steven Chu, welcome to the show.

Steven Chu
Thank you.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I mean, I'd love to run through kind of, you know, like, your brief history. I mean, it's just so amazing some of the things that you've accomplished. But you know, most people today think of, you know, Google X as like the, the fun startupy, think tanky, Silicon Valley company. But before that, there was something called Bell Labs. And that's where you got your start, do you want to tell me about what it was like to get started and work there back in the day?

Steven Chu
Well, it was the closest thing to heaven, to quote a famous movie, on Earth. The Empire State Building of science research. When I was hired, I actually had just accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Physics at Berkeley, where I was a graduate student and postdoc, but there was, they've never done that before. But so they said, you know, if you want, you can take a year or two leave of absence, go somewhere else. But the job is yours, here's your start money. You can do what you want. So I took the money, spent it. But then applied to Bell Labs with the intent of staying there for two years. So when I got there, it was an eye opening experience. I'd spent all my time at Berkeley as a graduate postdoc working on very fundamental physics, essentially one question. And all of a sudden, I was introduced to a wide range of things in science and began to learn about many things, began to switch fields. I was switching fields when I was a grad student postdoc, but in the first couple of years, I began to look into condensed matter physics, other things, did some experiments with an electron and a positron, and spectroscopy, which really has nothing to do with communications. But it was fundamental physics and Bell Labs was willing to support that.

Bret Kugelmass
So lasers were a big focus of yours, right?

Steven Chu
Absolutely. At that time, when I was hired at Berkeley, I knew how to make lasers. I'm not sure I knew physics. But I knew how to make state-of-the-art, or better than lasers and looked around for meaningful experiments to do. And positronium spectroscopy was one. I did a number of other things in condensed matter physics, then I was offered and accepted a department chair position at Bell Labs in the other major branch of Bell Labs, not home, Murray Hill but Holmdel. And so I moved down there and at the time, there's a fellow named Art Ashkin who had been dreaming of trapping atoms. But the work had been shut down for four or five years. Because they weren't, after some initial great ideas and progress, it had stalled. And so I kind of reinvented, didn't invent, reinvented, it was an old idea that was around but I didn't know about it, of that you can use light to cool atoms at ridiculously low temperatures. And if you could do that, then it seemed to me that all these things Ashkin was dreaming about might be possible.

Bret Kugelmass
And yeah, so what? What can you do? What's the purpose of cooling these atoms down, stopping them, looking at them? What would that lead to?

Steven Chu
Well, at the time I began the research I only knew one thing, it could make a better atomic clock. An atomic clock is the world time standard that we use today. And the reason I knew it would be better is if they were so cold, if you turn off your atom, trap your light, it would just fall out of the bottom of the vacuum can, which meant you can actually push them up. So they go up, turn around due to gravity and come back down. During that very long time ballistic, imagine tossing a ball in the air up a meter and coming back down, you know, a good fraction of a second, you can make an exquisite time measurement. So, I did this first so-called atomic fountain experiment, not the labs. But after we cooled and trapped the atoms and had the technology when I first moved to Stanford, that's one of the first things I tried. It worked, we could show that you could make a better atomic clock. And it's remarkable, because within seven years from that first publication, experiment, demonstration, experiment, the Bureau of Standards around the world began to use that and became the de facto time standard using these atomic fountains. We also showed in the early 90s, that you can quantum mechanically, using light pulses, split the atom apart, and bring them back together. But when they’re apart and back, coming back together, the atomic waves could interfere. But it could make a very exquisite measurement on, for example, we use wave interference of light all the time in so-called interferometers. And so then people began to think, can you make an atom interferometer? We weren't the first, we were the second, there were two papers that came in first. Three months later, our paper came in using light pulses. But we were the most accurate by far. And within a year or two, we got the first experiment, we got a part in a million measurements. Second experiment part in ten to the eight measurement accuracy. And then soon thereafter, a part in a billion. That means you can watch atoms drop due to gravity and measure the dropping by part in a billion. Now they've gotten another three or four decimal places.

Bret Kugelmass
And this is fundamentally how we think of measurement all together. Correct me if I'm wrong, but now we actually measure distance as a function of light. And is that partially because of our more precise ability now to use these tools?

Steven Chu
Yes, except it's not a measurement. What we know is we can measure time, time is the stake in the ground. And so, time is our international standard, and then everything else that we can get related to time, how far does light travel in a certain amount of time, that's the definition of distance now. The definition of an μm has to do with the frequency, the definition of virtually everything is now shifting, including the kilogram, to measurements in frequency.

Bret Kugelmass
I see. So now we have a common reference point for all other forms of measurement.

Steven Chu
Right. And so as physics tells us, there's an intimate connection between x and time, y and time, time and all these other things. And so we're slowly beginning to define as many things as we can as a function of time. It's an arbitrary reference, how many cycles of an atom, atomic cycles in an atom. So it's just a definition, this is how much the second means x number of cycles, but we can measure time to 14, 15, now, relative time to 20 digits.

Bret Kugelmass
Unbelievable

Steven Chu
Right

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I mean, it's just unbelievable where this has taken us. And so you actually ended up winning a Nobel Prize for this.

Steven Chu
Yes, for the technologies that cool atoms, very low temperatures and for optical trapping, and it came pretty quickly. I mean, I started doing this work in 1983-84. Really, in earnest. 85 was our first publication. 86 we trapped atoms with light. 87, we've made this magneto-optic trap we can make that can be the workhorse everybody could do it. It became very easy. And so the Nobel Prize was in 97. So that's 12 years. That's pretty quick by Nobel Prize standards.

Bret Kugelmass
And so here you are, and you've got this, you know, foundation in applications of physics. And at what point did your interests or introduction into energy systems and like real energy start to manifest in your life?

Steven Chu
Yeah, good question. First, I did physics and then with the technology to physics. As you discovered, you can hold on in bacteria with these so called optical traps, optical tweezers. And I said, if you can do that, you can hold on to biological molecules. And so I did that. And so beginning in the late 80s, early 90s, I began to go into biology. And by the year 2000, I got the Nobel Prize in 1997 for atomic physics work. But by the year 2000, the majority of my stuff was in biology. But in the same token, I began to read as an interested layperson, this stuff about climate change. And, you know, just as a scientist, I began to look at it myself and said, you know, they may have something there. You know, I see them a little skeptical, as I read more and more about it, now that this might be real, the risks might be real. I began to stick in the ends of talks, little comments about climate change that one should, you know, some more scientists should really look at what's going on here. And so that was increasing in the year 2000, to 1, 2, 3. And in 2004, some people asked would I consider throwing my hat in the ring to be the Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, it's a Department of Energy lab, immediately adjacent to Berkeley, does no classified work. It's a strictly science lab, not to be confused with Lawrence Livermore lab, which is one of the atomic weapons labs. And so I, so it's a very different laboratory. When I was a grad student, postdoc, and there, I was a member of Lawrence Berkeley Lab. So I have fond memories of the place. And but I said, no, I'm happy where I am at Stanford, I'm not interested. I said no, again. And finally, the then director of the lab, said, look, you know, we just want to, you know, why don't you come and visit. And if there's a 5% chance, you might take the job once you apply for it. So I came visiting. And the director at the time was my former boss at Bell Labs, he was the director when I went to Holmdel, the laser cooling trapping work. And then I said to myself, look, I'm talking about energy, climate change. Here's this great laboratory. By great laboratory, I mean that approximately 15 people working in the lab were employees that had gotten Nobel Prizes. Over about three dozen people who started their careers either graduated and postdocs, young scientists in the lab, got Nobel Prizes. That is better than most universities in the world. Right? Pretty well, when I say great. I mean, really, truly outstanding.

Bret Kugelmass
That's a lot of parking spots they've gotta reserve for them.

Steven Chu
Anyway, so I thought, you know, this is such a great science laboratory. If I can get more of the basic scientists interested in energy, climate change, I could move the needle in a way I could not move it by just giving a few talks, or through my own research. So I went there, and started talking more about the, you know, the risk of climate change, it doesn't have to be a certainty. There's a big risk out there. And science and technology can really change the landscape of the choices we had. My friends there, you know remember, I was associated with Berkeley said, well we didn't know anything about energy. I said, well, neither do I, let's teach ourselves. So we would, you know, there were half a dozen of us, we meet every week for an hour, hour and a half. And these are very high profile, great scientists who sometimes were too busy to go to their own department meetings. But for, you know, brainstorming and beginning to self teach, we did this. We had retreats, had a retreat, we had an open mic forum to discuss this, and sort of raised the awareness and interest, first of the awareness that this could be a real problem. But it said if you have anything technically that can contribute to this, why not just think about it. So it's not an order. It's not, here's where the money is going to do this. But it was an intellectual thing. And I remember when I was at the lab, I said, look, this is going to generate some great science as well. Because the solutions to this problem will naturally include a bunch of Nobel Prizes because we need some really good new dramatic science. I did not anticipate that you know, one of them came true. Very early, namely, the lithium-ion battery got a Nobel prize? Right? But I think there are several more for sure.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, because it's almost like the space race, you know, getting to space was a lofty goal unto itself, but a lot of technology is about better understanding, a better understanding of science and combustion. And rocketry and gravity, who knows all these things in material science have fallen out of this really hard problem that you put a lot of brains around to solve.

Steven Chu
Yeah, in that respect, I agree with you. But it's even better than that because there's a lot of things. The space race was essentially, we kind of knew the basic science and became an applied science slash engineering problem. Yes, there were material problems as in, you know, how to design the best rocket engines, all this other stuff, but we kind of knew about that, in this new frontier, there are a lot of things we don't know. And we need dramatically better batteries, the batteries are getting really low cost, they dropped a factor of tenfold in the last 10 years, they're gonna drop another two or three-fold. But one of the things we really need is fast-charging batteries. What do I mean by that? I mean, let's say you have a car that goes 350 miles on a battery, yeah. If you can fill it up, and within five minutes, add a 200-mile range, so it's only partially discharged, and add 200 more miles in five minutes. There would be no more range anxiety. Yeah, and you can put these fast-charge stations on interstates or in service stations. Because in those times when you just don't want to wait around. That's it.

Bret Kugelmass
And so solving these almost human problems that would contribute towards addressing climate change pose a host of technical challenges. There are some basic physics and chemistry problems like basic physics and chemistry problems to solve as well.

Steven Chu
Basic physics, chemistry, and biology. Let me talk about something else. Our agriculture and our raising of animals contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than electricity generation around the world. And so how do you? How do you change that? Because unless you change that, that's a major sector of emissions. Other major sectors are structural materials, steel, cement, for example. And industrial plastics, you know, plastics and chemicals, that lapped together is also another kind of one electricity generation worth of greenhouse gas emissions, okay. And so we need cement that doesn't have this huge green and steel that doesn't have these greenhouse gas emissions. The plastics come from fossil fuel so they're inherent, if they're biodegradable, then they get recycled, the carbon dioxide and methane, and then and you're adding more to it. So these are the fundamental issues. In the case of biology, there are, you know, some real new innovations in the last decade or two, one of them is CRISPR-Cas9, which is a way to edit genes in a much more precise way. That opens up the possibility that you can genetically modify microbes and plants. And so you can imagine intensive fertilizer plant like corn, what if you can get this corn to interact with microbes the way legumes do to make its own fertilizer, nitrogen-based fertilizer, then you've eliminated 1% or 2% of, you know, nitrogen-based fertilizer is 1% or 2% of greenhouse gas emissions. But it's worse than that, that's in the making of it. But if farmers over-fertilize, then the nitrogen runoff ends up being into oh, which is another potent greenhouse gas. So can you make self-fertilizing plants? And the answer is yes. And so this has begun.

Bret Kugelmass
So is all this stuff that we're talking about? Now, you know, I've probably read about in the last, you know, few years in Popular Science-like publications, were you getting some early insight as to the possibilities when you were still in this director position, and just kind of like laying out the framework, or did you just know that there was going to be a big field of opportunity?

Steven Chu
No, there were definitely definite things. When I was director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, a chemical engineer named Jay Keasling had just used microbes to make a precursor to an antimalarial drug that's found in plants in Southeast Asia. So he got a big Gates grant for that and it was a big deal. Okay, because, hey, microbes can now make antimalarial drugs. And so it got a lot of headlines. I said, Jay, you know, I know you want to go to another disease, but how about using this technology to make agriculture greener? Or even better still can you use it to make fuels that are substitutes for petroleum-based fuel? And so, you know, we started noodling around, I went and got another person who's very good at this stuff, and of plant biologists, a chemist at Stanford named Chris Field, who is at Stanford Woods Institute. So I recruited him to come to Berkeley and Berkeley Lab stole him from Stanford, which was very disloyal. Because I was still a faculty member, Stanford, as well as a faculty member at Berkeley. And we got half a billion dollars from BP to do this research over 10 years. And now, in hindsight, it was a little premature, you cannot, you know, at that time, we thought, oh the price of oil is $100 a barrel. It could go to $200 a barrel then you can compete. But of course, we didn't anticipate many, many things. And you can't compete at $50, $60 a barrel or $40 a barrel. But that was before CRISPR-Cas9 that was before a bunch of other things. So we actually started this in 2009-2010. A little bit premature, but now you know, you know, a decade later, we're in a very different place. I'm still very gung ho optimistic. But now there are these new powerful tools of robotics, CRISPR-Cas systems, artificial intelligence, and I'm on the board of a startup company that I joined after I came back from Secretary of Energy, where they're using genetic manipulation to grow stuff. These are microbes and make stuff, not fuels because that's still too cheap. But believe it or not thin films, they're used for cell phones, new mosquito repellents that could, you know, replace DEET, which has some harmful side effects, all sorts of stuff like that. Those are the starting tools based on biology, that as you go down the learning curves, eventually you want to go back to fuels and plastics. So already some of the thin-film plastics are being made commercially, which is very exciting.

Bret Kugelmass
So you skipped over a point there, at some point, you became Secretary of Energy? How did that happen? So you're developing this expertise, this understanding of climate and energy systems, or, you know, you're becoming, you know, one of the foremost experts, but how did that translate into actually being I mean was just your reputation was so strong at that point that the President called you up and said, Hey, get over here?

Steven Chu
Well, it's, it's kind of interesting. So, I've been, you know, joined summer 2004 at Berkeley, and there was a lot of chatter, hey here’s a serious practicing scientist who's actually not bad at being an administrator and able to rally the troops, not by orders but by getting people excited about it. And so when Obama won the election, people said, oh, you know, he might ask you to be Secretary of Energy and I don't didn't know him. I didn't publicly campaign for him, or anybody in my life, I was very apolitical. But then the third week in November, I get this phone call. And it says the president-elect would like you to fly to Chicago and talk to you about a very important job. And I said you know, I'm happy here. But not only that I was looking forward to stepping down from being a director at Berkeley and going back to the lab, because I’m also still a practicing scientist. But I said how important? So there's a mumble on the other end, uh... Secretary of Energy and I thought okay, for that I will fly to Chicago, that's worth my time. I may not have if it was for a Science Advisor or something like that or Undersecretary? Definitely not for Undersecretary or Deputy Secretary. And so I flew to Chicago. You know, there's this rented building I go up there and they say well, okay wait in this room. It's kind of a warm room. It's, you know, I said okay, it makes sense. The president’s from Hawaii. He likes it warm. And then Obama walks in and for the next hour we talk. What do you think about this? What about this? And we just chatted. And, and then, because, you know, he wanted to know what I thought about these things, what I was like, things like that. He actually walked in the room and said, everybody's telling me you should be our next Secretary of Energy and I got up and shook hands and said, who are these future former friends of mine? He just ignored it. Again, I wasn't looking for a beaurocrat job. In fact, I was looking to step down. And so but after this conversation, which lasted about an hour, Axelrod was there, a few others were there. I didn't know any of these people. I was impressed. And I called my wife at home and said, look if this guy asked me to be Secretary of Energy. I will say yes. And a couple weeks later, he said we'd like to nominate you for Secretary of Energy. So I said yes. That's a life changing job for sure. But I have to say that President Obama was very unusual. He began to hire people who were not politically connected to him. And just based on what he's hearing about who the best people for this job are, and you may or may not remember, but when he put together his cabinet, there were all sorts of comparisons of Obama's cabinet to Lincoln's cabinet. You know, Lincoln was a political newbie. The first president not to have been born in the 13 original states, you know, from a backwards place in Illinois, coming to town. And so what he did is he started hiring people in his cabinet who were his political rivals, on both sides of the aisle, and he was hiring the best people could find, which is amazing. Yeah. And so we were known as the team of rivals, which turned out not to be the case, we were actually a genial group of people, even though we were strong willed and outspoken and things like that. And sometimes we disagreed, but it, you know, would sort of self out, and Obama was willing to hire these people.

Bret Kugelmass
Listen, if you can disagree with the group respectfully, that is the best way to learn. Right, there's no better way to absorb information than to find a bunch of really smart people who disagree with you.

Steven Chu
Well, the respectful part sometimes comes and sometimes goes. I mean, I remember once where I'm in the Roosevelt Room, and Larry Summers and I had a different opinion. And Larry's a smart guy, and he, you know, I said, no, Larry you are wrong. And so we started jousting a bit. Everybody's backing off, just watching. But you know, in the end, we became friends. I mean, he came in very skeptical. He said, yeah you want to do all this stuff and spend a lot of money on energy and that will create jobs. But you can also create jobs by asking people to dig a big hole, and actually dig a hole. You just fill up the hole.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, like at Hanford.

Steven Chu
Anyway, we can get to that later. Yeah. But I said no, this is real, this is what we're going to need. And you know for the time he was there, he was skeptical. He's now since come around and recognizes that climate change is a very big deal. But a lot of the financial guys did not see it that way.

Bret Kugelmass
What was your mandate, like when you first took office was your mandate to I mean, I think most people have a sense of what the like official role of the Secretary of Energy is, you know, it has the weapons component, and then, you know, the National Labs, and but what was your like, personal mandate in private conversations with the President when he said, listen you are going to be successful if you do X. What was that X?

Steven Chu
Well, yeah, it was. And this was a very, very common ground. I mean, we want to take steps to decarbonize the country. That means you do research that would lead to deployment of renewable technologies. But we also, I felt that nuclear possibly could have a place because you need some backup power. So I was very pro nuclear and pro small modular reactors.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. You wrote about that as early as 2010. I believe.

Steven Chu
That's correct.

Bret Kugelmass
In the Wall Street Journal you published this piece, and I mean, it seems it seems so prescient reading it now because I mean, we're very involved, you know, with nuclear experts, and they're almost repeating even today and really trying to commercialize this stuff. But along the same theme of the things that you wrote about all the way back then before there was a small modular reactor or a new nuclear industry, you are essentially. I mean, you were saying what the world is gonna look like.

Steven Chu
Well, you know, that's even before being Secretary of Energy. I said, look, you know, we're gonna need nuclear, you know, because we're gonna need backup power, you can't go to 100% renewables, we don't have that, because we don't have the batteries. You know, batteries do peak load shifting. In order to store energy for even a week, the cost of the batteries has to be about $30 a kilowatt hour, which is 1/10 of what they are today, not in 2009, 2010, but today.

Bret Kugelmass
So saying that we need nuclear though is not always the most popular position to take. What were conversations with the president like about that when you were saying no, no, this is like, we can't just ignore this energy source. We know it's got a bad political rep, but we need to focus on it. What was the what, what happened after that?

Steven Chu
Well, I wasn't down selecting. I said, there are two choices for backup power. Because batteries weren't going to do the thing, hydro is limited. And so the two choices are fossil with carbon capture, natural gas with carbon capture, or nuclear. And so I was putting money into both. And guess what, nothing has changed. The thing that has changed is that many people came around to carbon capture. Because at first people said no, no, if you have carbon capture, that's an excuse for keeping the fossil industry going. And you're only going to capture 90-95% of the carbon, which is true. To capture 100% would be prohibitively expensive. And so it's not as good. I said, yes, it's not as good, but so are turning off the lights.

Bret Kugelmass
And speaking of carbon capture, because yeah, that seems to be another emotional topic that I always thought was like an obvious no brainer. I mean, I spend time researching, you know, this idea of direct air capture, where if it seems that you had a cheap enough, low carbon, enough energy source to power direct air capture, then, you know, not only could you, you know, offset any emissions that were hard to decarbonize, but we could take care of legacy emissions as well, that are still adding, you know, collecting, you know, net addition of heat, you know, year over year.

Steven Chu
Yeah, I agree with you. There's certain carbon emissions, which you just cannot capture, you're not going to be capturing carbon emissions from an airplane unless the fuel it burns has been made from biosource material that has captured carbon in order to make your fuel. And that's the only way you're going to get neutral on an airplane. And there's also lots of long haul shipping, ships and things like that, which you know, you need. And so in order to get to zero carbon everywhere. If you look at what you need to do, it's going to be hard in some instances. So you need negative emissions from somewhere else. And so air capture is absolutely one of the necessary things now. Now, that means you start with capture from point sources, because that's easier, right?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, higher concentration less-

Steven Chu
From you know, from cement, steel, power, plastics, you name it, all that stuff. That's easier. It's estimated to be roughly two or three times cheaper. But then from those learning experiences, you go to air capture, we're gonna need it all, and we definitely will need air capture before the end of this century.

Bret Kugelmass
Yep. So you got the ball rolling. I mean, we made an off hand joke about okay, not much has changed. But you really got the ball rolling, and I see in pockets of innovation, and, you know, commercialization and venture capital, you know, getting involved more than ever now. So obviously, like we've got some momentum, but what do you think, you know, where do you think we're still lacking either in, like policy direction? Or, you know, technical gaps? That, you know, if you were back in the role again today, where would you focus our attention, having seen the last 10 years?

Steven Chu
Yeah, a couple of places and I'll start with one that I was pushing before I was Secretary of Energy and that is, in order to go more towards clean energy and a robust energy system, you need not only local generation storage, you need long distance transmission, very efficient transmission. Our power system isn't like that. Even though there's, you know, there are three major power systems: the East, the West and Texas. Within those three major power systems, there are a lot of little utility costs. And if you look in regions where there's cheap energy, for example, in the Pacific Northwest, lots of hydro, a very inexpensive energy, you will want to take some of that hydro power and bring it, bring it elsewhere, like to California and other places. But they don't want it because that would make their energy prices go up a litte, even though the average will go down. In the Northeast, you have pretty expensive electricity. And yet, there's to the north Canada who's got oodles of hydro power, want to sell to the Northeast, but the people in the Northeast say, well, we don't really want it because we just invested in a new gas plant. And if you bring in cheap, you know, carbon free energy storage from Canada we get a stranded asset here. So they did the logical thing. They convinced all the good citizens of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, you don't want power lines in your backyard. So I was getting to watch all this in real time. But I'm saying we still imagine with all the wind resources from North Dakota, all the way to Texas with all the solar sources, especially in the southwest, with all the hydro resources, you can wrap this up and begin to get a pretty robust energy system. If you could transmit over long distances and get around the local politics of you know, energy is about money. But if you did that, the average energy building assets goes down. And so you got to try to keep people whole, but you know, make this transition now, especially the solar and wind you need, the great thing is, you know, we don't have the same weather in every place in the United States, which is another thing. Okay, so we have the technology to do this, but there was no political will when I was Secretary. I was just trying to get something simple going in this, the western part of the United States, which is an energy rebalancing. So you know, if this company is a little lower on energy than this one you get to swap it and make it so that it's financially much easier to do things. And I saw the same politics, they went immediately to the people in Congress and said, the Secretary of Energy is trying to ruin us. With this energy rebalancing, we don't want you know, because they, you know, they look at what they can only see, we like, we're making lots of money the way it is now, why do I want to change?

Bret Kugelmass
So this sounds like not a technical problem.

Steven Chu
No, it's not a technical problem. It's a political problem.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. I mean, so are you getting to that, that needs to be solved, like in order to solve our climate energy problems?

Steven Chu
Oh I think you need, everybody says you need a smarter grid for this. Absolutely true. You also need a smarter transmission. It's transmission and distribution, the grid, we think of distribution, but you want long distance transmission. If you had long distance transmission, and Texas allowed lines outside the border, they would not have suffered the blackouts they would have suffered, because of the bad weather. And, and so you automatically buy into a much more robust system. What is a little scary is that Europe was going more towards integrating transmission in Europe than the United States was.

Bret Kugelmass
Those are different countries

Steven Chu
Yes, we're one country, you know, and so there's, though I much prefer our way of governing ourselves in the US, there's one advantage China has. This is the way it's gonna be done right away. And they're the world leader in long distance transmission because of that.

Bret Kugelmass
And, but okay, but we can still see even in cases like China, where it's a top down edict, and they are making a tremendous amount of progress in clean energy, they're still also adding dirty sources. And you know, throughout Southeast Asia, certainly a lot of dirty sources. So it's like, and this is a global problem. So even if we were to magically wave a wand, fix the US politics, build a bunch of transmission rebalance, and all this other stuff, it doesn't mean that we're solving the full problem of climate change across the globe. So how do you think about it from that perspective as a global?

Steven Chu
Yeah, excellent question. So here's the thing about that. Part of the progress, there's a political aspect and a policy aspect. So I will say policy, forget the politics, but the policy aspect, and the technical aspect. And when you have better technical solutions, you can go lighter hand on the policy, right. You know, cars replace horses in cities very quickly within a decade and a half. And the reason was a pollution problem, you know, horse manure is piling up in cities. And along comes a poopless carriage. And this is great.

Bret Kugelmass
I like I like where you're going with this. Yeah, I'm a bit of a technofile myself. So yeah, I see this.

Steven Chu
And so, you know, the reason you know, solar became very cheap. And for a while India wasn't doing it because they wanted to protect local Indian solar companies. But eventually they said no, that's ridiculous. So then you do this. So as in when you get energy storage becoming very cheap that’s when electric vehicles become cheaper to own and operate than a gasoline powered vehicle. The personal choice is you just get an electric vehicle, right? But then you need more clean electricity generation. Now, what you say about coal, new coal is true. I think China's current pledge is that by I think it was 2030, they will stop increasing the, you know, first they made pledges on energy intensity, you know, energy per GDP. But now they're actually saying by 2030, we will plateau and by 2040, we will begin to bring it down to a total carbon emission period. Okay. And I think they’re pretty serious about that. Again, it's a kind of a technocratic run organization. You know, I don't agree with the political system. But they have a lot of engineers in politics, right. Trained as engineers. Yeah. Which is, you know, has some advantages. So, but let's go back to these new technologies, if you can get all this stuff, and you can get electrical systems and you can figure out substitutes for cement and steel, that's a very big deal in the developing world. You know, three quarters of India's building infrastructure does not exist today, that would be built by 2040. Okay, that that's a lot of steel. And concrete damage means a lot of carbon emissions. Yeah. And so. So then you redouble your efforts to find low carbon substitutes for producing steel or substituting for cement? That's where I think the United States and the Department of Energy in particular had a huge calling. You know, we gotta figure this out now, if we don't figure it out, we've got a problem. Yeah, because we're not, we cannot tell starting with China, India, but Sub Saharan Africa, you're not allowed to build more buildings, we'd build our buildings, but you're not. That doesn't. That's a non starter. So you want to build in a better way, and a cleaner way.

Bret Kugelmass
Was there any thought of like more moonshot type stuff? I mean, I've always thought, Well, you know, part of the carbon emissions come from these, like building materials, structure materials, but certain plastics, you know, hydrocarbons, you know, I could read off a list are almost as good as steel or aluminum. But they're so expensive to make. But they’re natural sequesters of carbon. And so I'm wondering, was ever this idea of like a carbon economy kind of pitched, where, hey, if we just made structural materials out of carbon market force cheaper than ones that are made in a carbon positive manner, that the market forces will just solve this problem itself?

Steven Chu
Cheaper, definitely. But even you know, let's even plan in the next 20-30 years, there'll be $60 or $80 a ton of CO2, which is actually not that much to help. But you're right in the sense that if you can start to use agricultural based materials that fix carbon, most people don't realize the amount of carbon being dragged out of the air with just our agriculture and grazing land is equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of the world. It's crazy. Natural. And that's not presenting rainforests. I'm talking about the plants.

Bret Kugelmass
We know that steady state we're talking about.

Steven Chu
Yeah I’m not talking about the stuff we grow for food and for animal food

Bret Kugelmass
You're saying we can get the carbon into the soil, or

Steven Chu
We can get the carbon into the plants. Now what happens is the plants then die, they rot, and they get recycled. So 99 point, whatever it is, 5% just gets recycled. There's a deeper appreciation that we've been getting carbon out of the soil with modern agricultural practices, deep plowing, things like that. And so now there's a recognition. Why don't we think of putting carbon back into the soil? It makes the soil more productive. And again, it's biology and chemistry that's going to help do that. Because the mechanization of farming before when you just had scratched the surface, you weren't doing much. But once you had a diesel tractor boy, you know, it's a very different thing. And so the mechanization allowed us to produce lots of food and irrigation and things like that. The next agricultural revolution we need is one which is becomes very low carbon or carbon neutral, but it can be carbon negative, because if you take the residues of all the plants, you know, the wheat straw, the rice straw, the corn stover, you put half the corn stover back in the ground that's necessary for fertilization, but the rest, you don't need. The rice straw and wheat straw we used to burn but now in many developed countries, you're not allowed to do that. So what do they do they bury, when they bury it it turns into methane.

Bret Kugelmass
Right, which is even worse than carbon.

Steven Chu
So imagine having a science where you can economically take this stuff, mostly cellulosic stuff and turn it into chemicals. And you start with high value plastics, or things like that. And then you work your way to fuels. Now, nobody is a very visible target as a structural material. Can you use chemistry? Because, structural materials, cement is really cheap. And it works. But you can start with, you know, with steels and rebar, you can you know, electro steel making won't come back, I think. But the coaking process is still carbon. So you look at all these things and say, Okay, this is what we have to think about. And so, you know, I started this at LBNL. And it continued as Secretary of Energy, but continued afterwards. Keeping in your head, what are the new breakthroughs that are happening every week, every month, every year, and saying, could this be useful? And, so this is what the world has to look at, you know, you get a certain breakthrough over here. And since you know, energy touches everything, energy, water, food, it's all one big issue now.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And that's why I mean, yeah, energy touches everything. And I think that's a key point. And that's why, you know, I was so impressed with your argument, coming back onto the nuclear side of things and how I thought, though, so prescient, because so many of these, you know, site specific issues, that you even if we made tremendous advances and wind or tremendous advances in solar, and you're still limited by where you can put them and some of the intermittency issues, but just seemed to me like such an, it seems to me like a much simpler solution. If we had cost effective, you know, factory produced, you know, nuclear style battery power plants that could just be dropped and plugged in place around the world, it seems to me if we could, if we could deliver a little nuclear plants, like we could deliver cars, we'd have cheaper energy to then power, the transformation of all these other sectors as well.

Steven Chu
Yeah, and nuclear can supply the process heat, it has to be able to go up and down in power. They are the first generation nuclear reactors the US installed, they were actually second generation, were designed to maintain steady power. The ones in Europe are the same design and have been used for a decade or two to ramp up down to 50% power and backup once or twice a day. So that technology, you can do this, then the question is, can you design and go from 5% power to 100% power in a couple of hours? If you do that, then it could be great because the future of nuclear power won't be for baseload it will be for when you run out of wind/solar.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. And so why is that though just to push back on that if it were cheaper than wind and solar and you got to those economics by scaling up production, just like wind and solar got to those economics by scaling up production? Why do we see them as a supplemental wind and solar instead of a foundation?

Steven Chu
Because of the words you said, if they're cheaper.

Bret Kugelmass
I see, okay. That's fine.

Steven Chu
Yeah. So because of the regulatory issues, because of the safety concerns and fears of contamination. So, you're gonna have to make, so my dream would be you can make small 50-100 megawatt reactors, modular in size. You can run them and not refuel for 5-10 years and then maybe refuel just once. You take the whole core and you put it in a deep borehole. So the great thing about that idea is that you can, we've got roughly 100, locally stored, spent fuel canisters in the States. And we haven't figured out a repository where to put them, even just transporting them from their current sites, to some central set of repositories is going to meet with resistance, you know, they don't want trucks carrying spent fuel highly reactive materials through their town.

Bret Kugelmass
Once again, not because it's a technical problem, but because it's political or social.

Steven Chu
It's a political social problem, because what if you had an accident and you had a spillage? And then you had contamination? You know, many more people die from coal plant emissions than from nuclear per unit electricity. And so that the new design of the small modulars are with that in mind when I was saying your energies, this is the first goal. Yeah, they have to be passively contamination free.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, no, I think it's brilliant. And then and then if that were achieved, then we would then we could and then you know, serialized and manufactured and the cost comes down, it seems like this could be, you know, like a real foundation of a carbon free future. Where do you see that going? And how come we don't just have like a space race to do that? Just small, passive, safe nuclear?

Steven Chu
I think the world should do that, because you but you've got to make them 1000s at a time. Yeah. at a factory where you have real quality control. And you've got to convince the public that contamination is not going to be an issue. Because what nuclear gives you is a compact energy source. Yeah. And if you have a compact energy source that can be turned and ramped up and down, then this is great. Because you know, as good as wind and solar are, you know, they're pretty land intensive, or now offshore wind is better, but it's gonna get cheaper. And so even the best offshore wind sites are blowing, they're turning the turbines 50% maybe projected up to 60% of the time, which is really good. Yeah. Okay, but not 100% of the time. And not on demand. So again, we do need energy unmanned sources, whether it's energy storage, or something else. So either means energy storage in the form of thermal energy storage, electrical energy storage, water energy storage, any of those things, and or turning on power.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And so, you know, your involvement today, you know, in this space, obviously, you know, you've accumulated this wealth of knowledge, you kick started the whole thing. You know, you're sitting on the boards of some companies. Are there other roles that you see yourself playing in moving forward into the future, as you know, this just becomes more and more pressing of a global issue?

Steven Chu
Well, a couple of roles first, in my own research, I'm working on a couple of things. We just published a paper on getting lithium from seawater. If that works commercially, that means you've increased the lithium's by about 5000 fold. That doesn't mean you shouldn't recycle lithium, but it makes the lithium price issue go away. Cobalt, you gotta make batteries without cobalt is going to be too expensive if two thirds of the personal vehicles and lots of stationary storage run on batteries. Cobalt is just out of the, just even nickel becomes an issue, but cobalt is just out of the question. And so I'm working on a lithium metals sulfur battery, we've got up to our eyeballs in sulfur. So I do it that way. So and, you know, back to the postdoc who worked on lithium recovery is now an assistant professor at University of Chicago. She's continuing that work I've you know, Royal Dutch Shell is interested in this stuff. Electrochemistry in general, is a very important topic. If you get more efficient in electrical chemistry, then and cheap electricity, then you can go to hydrogen as a cheaper battery. And you know, it's just converting one form of energy, solar wind into another form hydrogen, which you can then use for products. But for an energy carrier. How do you make electrochemistry cheaper? Well the catalysts are pretty good, but they're expensive. But another important point that most material sciences don't realize is you have to lower the footprint of the electrical chemical plant. Because footprint in size has a lot to do with cost. You see big, just see lots of money, you see smaller, you see less money. And so this is something I really began to appreciate when I was Secretary of Energy that I would not have really felt in my bones had I been just a scientist. So we're working on that. And so on the research side, I can see these little things. On the policy side, you know, I will give advice to people who or governments who want it. So far surprisingly, the past administration didn't want any advice from me. Was not surprised. This one does. And you know, I think, and not only the federal government, but you know California but, but also to help people become aware that there are new things coming down the pike. Keep your eyes open, you've heard this refrain over and over again. I've heard it for 20 plus years, 30 years. You know, we have all the technology we need, we just need the political will. And I'm saying no, no, no. If you have better technology, you need less political will,

Bret Kugelmass
They are intrinsically tied together.

Steven Chu
Yes. Yes. And it's, you know, and since energy is about money, and most decisions are about money. You know, the goal is not can you do it, you go to the moon, but it costs a lot of money. To go to the moon, or to Mars, right? And to get stuff into deployment, in agriculture, in power generation, in transportation, in everything we use. It's about money. Can you get cell fertilizing plants more productive so that farmers can make more profit? That's where all of a sudden, hey no more political will they move in that direction.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, you have to align the incentives of, you know, personal short term gains with long term environmental gains.

Steven Chu
That's right.

Bret Kugelmass
So as we wrap up, maybe you can just kind of, you know, paint the most optimistic picture for the future of humanity that you can in the coming decades, what do you say?

Steven Chu
The recognition that the climate risks are very real, in fact that some of the predictions that I never thought I'd live to see are coming true. So the acknowledgement that there is an issue, but the most optimistic thing is that science continues to move dramatically. And that you get very quick advances in discovery, in innovation, and then in large scale deployment. And it's only when you get large-scale deployment that it really matters, you know, of the 40 plus gigatons 40-50 carbon dioxide equivalent gigatons, we admit per year. How do you bring that to zero and actually to negative, negative is very important. Because we're about 410-415 parts per million now. We look historically where the earth was when it was that high, it's not a good place. I think we're going to, unfortunately, go over 450 or even 500 parts per million. Yeah, maybe even 550. But so a lot of the long term things. There's time to fix, I'll tell you why this is easy to understand, the bottoms of the ocean are very cold. They're slow temperature mixing, you've done something to the atmosphere. So apart from the solar cycles every 11 years energy in roughly the same, really roughly the same energy outlets, right. So I mean, you warm up, how long does it take to warm up? Well, you got very cold oceans, you go down two kilometers, and it's pretty close to damn near freezing. In fact, you go two meters in the ocean and you get cold, right, you can just notice that before the earth warms up and you actually enter and go into really different cycles and you weaken the Gulf Stream and all this other stuff. You got to get the carbon dioxide back out of the air. Before the oceans warm up. How long have you got left? Well 50, 100 years. You know, after 200 ,300 years. And so you got to get, you know, so suppose we're in a world of 550, you got to get back down to 400 or 350.

Bret Kugelmass
So before I let you go, that's actually one point that I'm really glad that you brought up that brought me into the climate energy space. But I see no recognition of, you know, across scientific and political circles, this idea that net zero actually isn't enough. Because we've got a radiative forcing of three watts per square meter, at the current level, we're gonna go higher than that. And so even if we cut all future emissions, we continue to add a cumulative heat year over year to our Earth system. But everyone keeps talking about net zero and refuses to acknowledge that that actually won't solve the problem. We could see a world of increasing temperatures, even when you hit net zero.

Steven Chu
Yeah. You know, we, I'd be astonished if we don't go above 450. Because we're gonna go above 450 within a decade or two. Okay. So all you have to do is look at the world where we last at 450. Where was the temperature? Now there's one caveat, the continents have to be more or less in the same place. Because when the continents drift around, you know, that changes the climate dynamic, but you don't, you know, but at 450 the continents, if you go back, you know, a couple million years they were in the same place. Yeah. And we're in a very bad place in temperature. So the whole equilibrium temperature is not two degrees higher, it's higher. Yeah. Okay. And so I use history as a reasonable predictor.

Bret Kugelmass
Fair scientific principle.

Steven Chu
If the other boundary conditions are more or less the same, that's the one caveat, like the continents in the same place. So we're in a very bad place, even at 450.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, well, any last, I always like to actually end on a positive note. So any last positive comments before we wrap up?

Steven Chu
The best, the best positive comment is that a lot of young people know, there's a problem. And there's a lot of brainpower. Yeah. And so you harness this. And this is something, you know, it's not a Cold War race, it's not who gets first the moon, because everybody wins. And so one has to appreciate this is something there, if you solve these problems, there will be no losers, well there will be some stranded asset losers. I mean, in terms of society and humanity that, you know, it's going to be all good. And so talking about one of the most noble things you can do and think about and use whatever talents people have is this one. This is the big gorilla in the room.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Well, Dr. Steven Chu, thank you so much for your time, sharing your story, wisdom and insight with us and I hope this is the future of great things to come.

Steven Chu
Alright, thank you. Thank you.

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