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Secretary Chu’s Quirky Ideas

Posted By Tait Trussell On November 23, 2011 @ 12:01 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 11 Comments

The sun doesn’t shine as brightly for Energy Secretary Steven Chu these days. But he has other ideas for saving the world from the evil of fossil fuels. Can we forget Solyndra?

Instead, how about the “Glucose Economy.” The what?  Chu came up with the idea of a global “glucose economy” to supplant mankind’s dependence on oil while he was teaching physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

For his global glucose economy, vast supplies of fast-growing crops would be planted in the sunny tropics. The plants would be converted into glucose. The glucose would be shipped around the world much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels to run our cars. Wow! What an approach to the energy problem.

Not all tropical countries, whether oil producers or agricultural powers, are friends of the United States. But Chu has the ideas needed to deal with global warming– if there is indeed any real problem with global warming, which science says occurs intermittently with global cooling throughout history.

Then there is Chu’s somewhat peculiar idea for utilizing termites’ guts. As Chu explained in a interview in 2007 when he was director of the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, “Termites have developed a symbiotic relationship with colonies of bacteria that reside inside a termite’s gut and convert biomass, specifically cellulose, mostly from wood, into chemical energy the termite can utilize.

“If we can learn to either genetically engineer the microorganisms from termite guts, or cow guts…to produce more energy from biomass than they need, or else adapt the chemistry within the microorganisms to process the biomass ourselves, we would go a long way towards reducing our dependency…(on) oil.”

If he could find ways to turn cockroaches and mosquitoes into energy, that would be a real blessing.

Chu, in the interview, was also asked to talk about “out of the box” energy research—as if termite guts were an “in the box” concept.

He explained in the interview: “We think a solution to the energy problems may lie at the interface between biology and the physical sciences on the nanoscale. We are now mounting a major, multidisciplinary initiative…which would develop ways to convert solar energy into a carbon-neutral form of energy that could sustain our world in an environmentally friendly manner,

“To do this, we are drawing on our expertise in nanotechnology and synthetic biology and the resources…at the West Berkeley Biocenter…and at The Molecular Foundry, a U.S. Department of Energy nanoscale science research center….

“We believe that a well-conceived program put in place now has the potential to provide the people of the United States with renewable energy security and economic growth for decades to come.”

Another example of his unorthodox thinking is his May 2009 recommendation to paint the roofs of buildings around the world white and use light-colored road surfaces to reflect sunlight back into space — possibly enough to have an effect on global warming. He believes this would reduce carbon equal to taking every car in the world off the road for a decade. There are plenty of scientists with many notions, but they are seldom in a position to convert their visions to action, as Chu attempts to do.

Chu ran into frightful problems this year when his Energy Department and the White House thought a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, Inc. solar power firm could help stop global warming. Many of the problems that forced the company to shutter operations threaten other businesses in the sun-power industry, with more upheaval likely, according to an article in The New York Times Sept. 6.

Chu’s research at Bell Labs was in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. It won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, together with colleagues Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Daniel Phillips.

Chu has gained worldwide attention as a scientist as well as with some of his quirky ideas about how to deal with climate change. Now he has to figure out how to keep his job. He may have already thrown himself “under the bus,” as the current cliché phrases it.

Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Nov. 17. an unapologetic Secretary Chu defended the half-billion-dollar loan to solar-panel manufacturer, Solyndra, Inc. that went into bankruptcy. He said he was unaware of the key details that led to the scandal.

He also said with a straight face the decision to fund the company was not political. Termite guts as a replacement for auto fuel is more believable.

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