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Physicist Searches for Alternative Fuel Technologies

May 2, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: It was a sign of how in vogue concern about global warming is: Six Nobel Prize-winning scientists at the University of California at Berkeley donned makeup and posed in a tree…

PHOTOGRAPHER: No, don’t stand, don’t stand. Don’t smile. Nothing to smile about.

SPENCER MICHELS: … for a special green issue of Vanity Fair. Among the science stars was Steven Chu, a 59-year-old physicist who, as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, welcomed the attention to the problem.

Today, Chu is using his bully pulpit to coordinate a scientific attack on global warming.

STEVEN CHU, Scientist: So if you say, “Wait until you’re really sure,” then it will be too late. In the last five or six years, I was following this as an interested citizen. And it became more and more apparent to me that the dangers, potential risks of climate change were looking like they’re more and more likely, and that one really has to, as a scientist, as a responsible scientist, we really have to think of, what can you do to help with this problem?

SPENCER MICHELS: The Lawrence Berkeley lab has long been active in promoting energy conservation. The compact fluorescent light bulb was invented here, and scientists have been experimenting with ways to cut down energy use by electronically controlling how much light goes through windows. Air conditioning and heating due to inefficient windows account for 15 percent of all energy used in the U.S.

But Chu thought a more comprehensive effort was needed, including finding new energy sources, so he has harnessed independent-minded biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers from the lab and from the Berkeley campus to work together, something that’s rare in academia.

STEVEN CHU: Can we get the very best basic researchers to take this on as a challenge? Then you have the intellectual horsepower to actually get something going. And you can’t do this — the magnitude and scale of the problem is something you cannot do as an individual researcher.

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist

SPENCER MICHELS: So this is a nano lab?

STEVEN CHU: Right.

SPENCER MICHELS: Steve Chu is used to dealing with high-achieving scientists. His family is full of them.

STEVEN CHU: I'm the least-educated person in my immediate family. My two other brothers have multiple advanced degrees, and I only have one.

SPENCER MICHELS: Do you feel inferior?

STEVEN CHU: No, actually, now that I've got a Nobel Prize, I feel equal.

SPENCER MICHELS: Chu grew up in New York. An A-minus student in high school, he was denied admission to Ivy League colleges. So he went to the University of Rochester and then on to Berkeley in experimental physics. He won his Nobel Prize in 1997 for work on cooling atoms with laser light. Today, he still works in the lab, but his focus now is too big for one researcher.

STEVEN CHU: If you look at photovoltaic solar cells with nanotechnology, what can we do across the boundaries between chemistry and physics? What can we do to bring in things that begin to look at how to mimic biology?

SPENCER MICHELS: At the lab's new Foundry Building, the emphasis is on nanotechnology.

DAVID KAVULAK, Graduate Student, University of California at Berkeley: A nanometer is 100,000 times thinner than your hair, than a human hair, so it's incredibly small.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nanotechnologists are experimenting with new ways to convert sunlight to electricity. They think they can replace the traditional solar cells, which are made of silicon, with ultra-thin layers of long molecules called polymers, which could be painted on surfaces with no environmental damage and at low cost.

Chu is pushing to go beyond photovoltaic cells. He wants to convert the sun's energy into a fuel you can use to power your car, in a sense, to capture sunlight in a bottle.

STEVEN CHU: We now know how to take sunlight and make electricity, but we don't know how to efficiently transform that electricity into chemical fuel. The chemical fuel is important, because that's an energy storage system. And once we have electricity, you're either going to use it or lose it. So we are looking at photosynthetic processes of how nature takes this energy from the sun and turns it into chemical fuel.

Developing fuel from biomass

SPENCER MICHELS: A major part of Chu's vision is to develop fuels from plants, or biomass, as scientists call it. That vision got a big boost in February when BP, one of the world's largest oil companies, decided to grant half a billion dollars to the University of California and its partners, the Berkeley lab and the University of Illinois, to create a new institute.

ROBERT MALONE, President, BP America, Inc.: The Energy Bioscience Institutes will perform groundbreaking research aimed at the production of new and cleaner energy.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), California: The work that is done here will put these fuels into the mainstream as soon as possible.

SPENCER MICHELS: BP chose Berkeley and Illinois because efforts are already underway at both schools to convert grasses into low-carbon fuels. Illinois scientists are growing miscanthus, which is more efficient than the corn currently used in the U.S. for ethanol.

STEVEN CHU: Corn, at best, is a transition crop, but very quickly we want to transition away from corn to a grass that requires far less land for the amount of fuel, far less fertilizer, far less water.

SPENCER MICHELS: Chu cites the work of the lab's Jay Keasling, who is converting switchgrass into biofuel. Using a form of genetic engineering, his lab is producing enzymes that trigger the conversion of the plant.

JAY KEASLING, University of California, Berkeley: And you cut it down, you grind it up into small pieces. The sugar is bound up in switchgrass, in something called cellulose. We have to break that down, so we used enzymes to chew that up. And it releases sugars. And we take that sugar, and we feed it to the microbes that are producing the fuel, and they spit out the fuel.

SPENCER MICHELS: The fuel could then be used in place of gasoline.

Why do you want a hydrocarbon in your gas tank? You'll get carbon dioxide in the air.

JAY KEASLING: That's right, but plants took up that carbon dioxide. They fix the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It gets turned into sugar in the plants, which we then convert into a fuel, gets burned into your engine, and produces CO2. It's CO2-neutral.

Concerns about a deal with BP

SPENCER MICHELS: The BP deal, which will support biofuel research, sparked controversy on the Berkeley campus. At an academic senate meeting, some of Berkeley's faculty voiced their concerns that the university was selling out.

IGNACIO CHAPELA, University of California, Berkeley: The idea of biofuels embodied in the BP-Berkeley proposal is not only shortsighted, but fatally flawed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Among those leading the opposition is Tadeusz Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

TADEUSZ PATZEK, University of California, Berkeley: There are two types of crops, right, from the point of view of biofuels.

SPENCER MICHELS: Patzek says growing biomass will use huge quantities of fertilizers and pesticides and could alter the land.

TADEUSZ PATZEK: You're going to end up eliminating so much old-growth tropical forests, drying up peat, the swamps, and burning so much of it, that the resulting emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases, for that matter, will dwarf the entire emissions of the United States for a decade or so.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Patzek's concerns go beyond that. He says, if the university accepts BP's $500 million, the company will exert too much influence on the direction of the research, will own some of the intellectual property rights, and will compromise the university's reputation.

TADEUSZ PATZEK: I have to sort of step back and put myself into the shoes of Steven Chu. He has mouths to feed and a lab that is being greatly underfinanced by the Department of Energy. And he's desperately, absolutely desperately looking at sources of funding outside of government.

STEVEN CHU: There's no denying it that, when you have this kind of money, you have to be extra careful to make sure that this kind of money doesn't lead to the types of influence that some of the critics will say, "Well, we've got to be careful." And I agree with that.

Seeking partnership with industry

SPENCER MICHELS: Chu not only defends the BP agreement, he says he is actively seeking that kind of partnership with industry.

STEVEN CHU: We want to partner with companies at the very beginning, because the companies can tell us, "No, don't go down this pathway. It won't scale right," or, "We know of things that perhaps an academic would not know about," so we don't go marching down a road and find out, after five, 10 years, no, this isn't going to be a solution. Industry won't pick it up.

SPENCER MICHELS: Furthermore, Chu finds many of the objections to research on new sources of energy to be counterproductive, and could lead to continued dependence on polluting fossil fuels, like coal.

STEVEN CHU: You can be against wind, because big windmills are unsightly. You can be against nuclear for a lot of reasons. You can be against biofuel for a lot of reasons. And the end result is we go to coal. Coal is cheap; it's plentiful; and the default is coal. And that's what you have to understand is, you can be against everything, but then what are you going to be for?

SPENCER MICHELS: Chu is optimistic that, in little more than a decade, we'll be using carbon-neutral biofuels to power our cars.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, the chief executive of BP resigned yesterday, after Spencer filed that story. A BP official told the NewsHour today, "There is no reason to believe anything has changed" with the company's commitment to fund biofuel research.

You can send your own questions about climate change to Steven Chu by going to our Web site at PBS.org.