Steven Chu was one of many people who benefited from and benefited Bell Labs, the premiere private research institution until the dismantling of AT&T. The underlying principle was to put a large number of really smart people in one space, and really good work will result. I’ve heard Chu talk a number of times, and the need to recreate a new Bell Labs is a frequent theme. There are more ideas than the group can use, so no one has to worry about their idea being stolen, and useful conversations abound. The majority of pathways lead to failure, but this is because the questions are the hard ones. Wikipedia lists 7 Nobel Prizes for work at Bell Labs, including Chu’s own.

Now Secretary of Energy Chu is overseeing Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Chu didn’t get funding for the hubs he hoped for, but DoE is funding a number of potential energy paths. Some of the projects getting funding:

• molten metal to store energy as part of the energy grid
• jet engine experts working on small scale wind turbines
• transgenic plants for cellulosic biofuels
• low cost crystals for LED lighting

No surprise: the biggies are solar, bioenergy, energy storage, carbon capture and storage, and vehicles. Also represented are building efficiency, waste heat capture, wind, geothermal, and desalination.

Chu says that he expects some projects to fail. So DoE is looking for big ideas.

Chu talking about Bell Labs
Chu talking about Bell Labs

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