President-elect Barack Obama has picked Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Steven Chu as the nation’s new Secretary of Energy, according to the Associated Press and numerous broadcast and wire service accounts.
LBNL spokesperson Dan Krotz offered only a “no comment” Wednesday afternoon.
Under Chu’s leadership, the lab and UC Berkeley have partnered with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to land a $500 million BP contract to develop plant-based fuels to replace petroleum on the nation’s highways and air lanes.
Obama has close ties to the university in Illinois, the state he represented in the U.S. Senate.
Chu, who shared a Nobel Prize in physics 11 years ago, was named director of LBNL four years ago. The lab operates under the aegis of the department he will reportedly head.
Another LBNL scientist, Dan Kammen, has been serving as a green technology adviser to the president-elect, and Kammen has been critical of the use of ethanol.
Chris Somerville, the bioengineer who heads the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute, has said that the program at Cal and Illinois is seeking to develop new fuels that more closely resemble gasoline than ethanol.
Ignacio Chapela, a UC Berkeley biologist, has been a critic of the BP program. Chu’s selection for the nation’s top energy post would be “a triumph of P.R.,” Chapela said. “He is a person with deep conflicts of interest and commitment, who has shown he will not listen to a diversity of opinion.”
Academic critics of biofuels—which they prefer to call agrofuels—say that plantations of patented crops grown in Third World countries are a poor solution to the nation’s energy problems.
Daewoo, a Korean corporate giant, announced last month that it had negotiated a lease for one million acres of land on Madagascar—half that island’s arable soil—to plant palms and grain crops to create biofuels.
LBNL’s Kammen himself dispatched researchers to India and Africa in search of potential fuel crops as the first field program of the EBI research effort.
Chu’s Nobel was shared with two colleagues at Bell Labs, where they had developed techniques to cool and trap atoms with lasers. He left Bell for Stanford’s physics department, where he was working when he was picked to head LBNL.
The physicist himself is overseas and was unavailable for comment. He is scheduled to be back at his post on the hill Monday.