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Obama Picks Berkeley Lab Director Steve Chu for Energy Secretary

President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Steve Chu, Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), to be Secretary of Energy.

Chu, 60, is a Nobel laureate physicist and a Professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. He is also one of the nation’s foremost and outspoken advocates for scientific solutions to the twin problems of global warming and the need for carbon-neutral renewable sources of energy. He has called these problems “the greatest challenge facing science” and has rallied many of the world’s top scientists to address it.

In speeches to organizations around the globe, Chu has delivered a consistent message. “Stronger storms, shrinking glaciers and winter snowpack, prolonged droughts and rising sea levels are raising the specter of global food and water shortages. The ominous signs of climate change we see today are a warning of dire economic and social consequences for us all, but especially for the poor of the world,” Chu has said. “The path to finding solutions is to bring together the finest, most passionate minds to work on the problem in a coordinated effort, and to give these researchers the resources commensurate with the challenge.”

Since assuming the directorship of Berkeley Lab in August, 2004, Chu has put his words into action by focusing the Laboratory’s considerable scientific resources on energy security and global climate change, in particular the production of new fuels and electricity from sunlight through non-food plant materials and artificial photosynthesis. At the same time he has reinforced the Lab’s historic leadership in energy-efficient technologies and climate science.

“Steve Chu came to our lab with a vision for how our community could have an impact on the greatest scientific and technological challenges of our times,” said Deputy Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos. “Berkeley Lab has been transformed under his leadership so that we now have programs that bring together scientists from diverse disciplines to work on biofuels, soft X-ray science, solar energy, carbon management and battery technologies, just to mention a few.”

Said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who has known Chu for three decades since the two men worked at Bell Laboratories in the 1970s, “Steve Chu has been relentless about addressing the technical challenges of renewable energy in a deep way. We will now have an energy policy that can mean the U.S. will have a chance of obtaining energy self-sufficiency through new technology.”

Chu was instrumental in bringing to the Bay Area the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a $135 million DOE-funded bioenergy research center operated by a multi-institutional partnership under the leadership of Berkeley Lab. He also played a major role in the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which is funded by a $500 million grant from BP.

“Steve Chu has been an incredible visionary and true leader, particularly in the area of energy,” said Jay Keasling, who heads JBEI. “Now the country and the world will benefit from that vision and leadership." 

Said Chris Somerville, who heads the EBI, “Fellow scientists see Steve Chu as a persuasive visionary able to bridge science with the private sector and government.”

Chu is internationally recognized as a proponent of increased government investment in advanced energy research, and he has been a leader in national and international studies including the influential InterAcademy Council report Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future, the National Academy’s Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, and the National Academies’ ongoing study, America's Energy Future.

UC President Mark Yudof called Chu’s nomination to lead the Energy Department an inspired choice.

“Steve is a proven leader with a passion for education and science and a talent for identifying new solutions to pressing problems,” Yudof said. “While he will be greatly missed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Steve will bring to Washington a distinguished record of scientific achievement and a deep understanding of the energy, environmental and national security issues at the heart of the Department of Energy’s portfolio.”

In addition to the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, shared with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, Chu’s numerous awards include the American Physical Society’s Arthur Schawlow Prize for Laser Science, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Senior Scientist Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Academica Sinica, the American Philosophical Society, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Korean Academy of Sciences and Technology.

Chu earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Rochester in 1970, a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1976, and was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley from 1976 to 1978, when he joined ATT’s Bell Labs. He moved to Stanford University in 1987, where he was a professor of physics and applied physics, and where he received high academic honors and held a number of administrative posts before joining Berkeley Lab in 2004.

Chu was born in Saint Louis, Missouri on February 28, 1948. He is married to Jean Chu, an Oxford-trained physicist, and has two grown sons, Geoffrey and Michael, by a previous marriage.

Chu is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ committee on Alternative Models of Federal Funding of Science, and is on the Steering Committee of the Energy Security, Innovation and Sustainability Initiative of the nongovernmental Council on Competitiveness. He also serves on the Board of Trustees of the University of Rochester, the Board of Directors of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Board of Directors of NVIDIA Corporation, the Governing Board of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, and the Scientific Board of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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Additional Information


Reactions on the Obama Chu announcement from colleagues and notables

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
I know Steven Chu and there is no one brighter or better equipped to become Secretary of Energy at this critical time to tackle the major challenges of global warming, energy security, and a reassessment of our nation’s nuclear posture.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger 
President-elect Obama has chosen premier environmentalists to implement policies that will create a better environment for everyone, and it is a testament to California’s leadership that members of his energy and environmental team are from this state. We have been a strong leader in pursuing policies that protect the environment and health of Californians while also promoting the growth of green technology and I am proud of the work we have done. My Administration and I look forward to working with President-elect Obama and this group of highly qualified individuals, including Californians Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy and Nancy Sutley as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who offer a unique perspective that will serve as an asset to our state and the rest of the country.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) 
Steven Chu is an extremely accomplished scientist and strong choice to lead America into a more energy-independent future.  He has shown that he can work beyond the confines of a national lab to tackle real-world issues, and his expertise will greatly benefit our country.  I have been impressed by his command and understanding of the serious energy and global warming problems we face, which is why I brought him to the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas this summer.  I am confident that Dr. Chu will transform the Department of Energy into a smart and progressive weapon against our addiction to oil, making our economy vastly more energy efficient and bringing about a safer future. Dr. Chu also knows, like most Nevadans, that Yucca Mountain is not a viable solution for dumping and dealing with nuclear waste. I look forward to confirming Dr. Chu as quickly as possible.

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman
The United States is faced with a series of challenges critical to its long-term energy and national security.  Over the past four years, the U.S. Department of Energy has worked to ensure the availability of clean, diverse, and affordable energy supplies; to safeguard the nation’s nuclear stockpile and support national security efforts; to restore and rehabilitate this country’s Cold War legacy sites; and to maintain America’s status as the world’s leader in science and technology. To do all this and to do it safely is a task of considerable difficultly.  So I am pleased to learn that President-elect Obama has selected Dr. Steve Chu to lead the Department.  As the Director of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dr. Chu understands the significance of our energy and environmental challenges, and more importantly, understands the technical solutions necessary to address them.  He is also aware of the vital role that DOE plays in matters of energy and national security and appreciates the necessity of the Department’s voice on these matters.  I fully expect the Department to continue as the leader of scientific funding and alternative energy technology development in the next Administration. I have worked with Dr. Chu for the past four years, and I hold him in the highest regard.  I am confident he will provide the Department with the necessary leadership, vision, and expertise we need to continue to fulfill our mission.

Senator Alex Padilla, Chair, CA State Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee
Steven Chu’s nomination to the position of Energy Secretary is extremely well-deserved.  California has led the way in setting landmark greenhouse gas emissions goals and renewable energy growth.  Steven’s nomination will build on what California is doing and will raise our national commitment to the same.  As Chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, I look forward to working with Steven on the important task of addressing climate change and implementing renewable energy goals.  I am hopeful that Steven’s continued commitment to finding the most cutting-edge technology will fulfill our energy needs and bring us closer to energy independence.

California State Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, Member of California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources
As America endeavors to transform itself from a “gray-stack” to a “green-stack” economy, it can only be done with the environmental stewardship and energy expertise like that of Steven Chu. As a Californian, Dr. Chu understands the regulatory challenges and unique opportunities that come with tackling climate change and greenhouse gas reduction. I'm excited about our future with this environmental leadership team in place.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Ninth Congressional District of California, U.S. House of Representatives
I commend President-elect Obama on his excellent choice to lead our country in the battle against global warming and on the path to energy innovation. Steven Chu has been a leader in the development of renewable and carbon-neutral sources of energy in my district at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and he will bring a wealth of ideas and ingenuity to Washington. Once again, President-elect Obama has demonstrated his commitment to make America a cleaner, greener country.

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The 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics

Nobel medal image

Steven Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." More >>

Steven Chu's Nobel autobiography
Chu's Nobel Lecture (.pdf)
Receiving the Nobel Prize

About Steve Chu

IMAGE: Steven Chu
Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt/ Berkeley Lab Public Affairs

Steve Chu has been Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since August, 2004. Chu, an early advocate for finding scientific solutions to climate change, has guided Berkeley Lab on a new mission to become the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy.

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To Catch an Atom

IMAGE: Steven Chu in the lab
Photo by Linda A. Cicero/ Stanford News Service

If you ever get the feeling that life is a blur, maybe it’s because the atoms that make up the world around us are always moving at speeds faster than those of supersonic jet planes (about 4,000 kilometers per hour). By cooling an atom down to a temperature of nearly absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius), you can slow its movement to a crawl and then use light to trap and manipulate it. That’s what physicist Steven Chu, the new director of Berkeley Lab, did to win a share of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.

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