Key Chu Ally Named Interin Chief of LBNL

By Richard Brenneman
Monday January 26, 2009 - 05:21:00 PM

UC President Mark Yudof named a key ally of new U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to fill the secretary’s former post as head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

Chemist Paul Alivisatos had been serving as deputy director of the lab and chief research officer. He will be interim director of the lab until a permanent director is found. 

At Chu’s direction, Alivisatos and fellow lab scientist Jay Keasling drew up the blueprint for what became the Helios Energy Research Facility, which has given birth to a $500 million research program funded by British petroleum giant BP and a plan for a controversial laboratory above Strawberry Canyon which is currently undergoing environmental review. 

The BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute is researching a variety of alternative energy programs, but most of the research is focused on turning non-food crops into fuels using patented microbes to break down cell walls into transportation fuels. 

EBI research includes the use of engineered microscopic “nanomaterials” as catalysts in the fuel-making process, one of Alivisatos’s research specialties and one of the reasons Chu named him to head LBNL’s nanotech research facility, the Molecular Foundry, from 2001 to 2005. 

Like fellow biofuel resesearchers Keasling and EBI head Chris Somerville, Alivisatos is an entrepreneur, and was a founder of at least two private-sector nanotech businesses, Quantum Dot Corp. and Nanosys Inc. He also serves on the board of a third company, Solextant, Inc., according to a UC press release. 

Nanoparticles are themselves controversial, with some research indicating some of the resulting particles may have cancer-causing properties similar to those of asbestos. 

While a UC Berkeley faculty member, Alivisatos will manage the lab on behalf of Chu’s Department of Energy. LBNL is one of three Berkeley-run DOE laboratories, the others being Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. 

UC announced that the formal search for Chu’s replacement will commence “in the coming weeks” to advise Yudof on a permanent replacement. 

UC is proposing to pay Alivisatos $406,980 a year as interim director, a 14 percent bump over his current salary of $357,000. He’s also set to receive an $8,916 annual car allowance as well as the option to participate in UC’s home mortgage program, according to the university. 

“Like many others, I have been inspired by Steve Chu’s vision of how the work at our lab could overcome some of the most difficult challenges of our time. I share that vision and welcome the opportunity to lead this great national laboratory at such an historic moment,” Alivisatos said in a prepared statement released by the university.  

Alivisatos “is a preeminent scientist with superb leadership and management experience,” Yudof said in the same press release. “I am confident that he will provide excellent leadership for the Berkeley laboratory during this transitional period as it continues addressing some of the greatest scientific and energy challenges confronting our country.”