Steven Chu’s DOE Legacy: Big Science, Grand Challenges and Solyndra

By Tiffany Trader

February 5, 2013

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu oversaw the nation’s energy policy at one of the most politically divisive times in recent history. Last Friday he announced that he would step down from the job. As a big champion of Big Science and its potential to change the country’s economic and environmental landscape – with government aid – many people welcome the change while others are sad to see him go.

Both views are based on one fact: During his four-year term, Chu emphasized the role of science and technology funding in national innovation and competitiveness.

In many people’s view, his greatest achievement was bringing science back to the forefront of energy policy after years of neglect under previous administrations.

To others, his decision to provide $535 million in federal loan guarantees to Solyndra, a solar energy company that later went bankrupt, makes him the poster child for government misspending.

A physics professor, Nobel Prize winner, and Bell Labs investigator, Chu has always been a huge proponent of the transformative power of research.

President Obama praised Chu for his efforts to bring about that transformation. “Over the past four years we have doubled the use of renewable energy, reduced our dependence on foreign oil and put our country on a path to win the global race for clean-energy jobs,” the President said.

Chu pushed the idea that high performance computing should play a key role in overcoming today’s difficult energy challenges. As head of the DOE, he was responsible for some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. DOE’s Office of Science makes supercomputers available to researchers who use them to simulate everything from the components of a proton to the mechanisms of an exploding star. At a 2010 summit in Washington, D.C., he asserted that the “the DOE strategy should be to make simulation part of everyone’s toolbox.”

In 1997, Chu, along with several Bell Lab colleagues, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on laser cooling. An article at Quartz by Steve LeVine examines how Chu set out to recreate the prolific Bell Laboratory model in Washington using focused funding streams and strategic innovation centers.

Chu’s approach was multi-pronged. First, he created 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), funded at $2-5 million per year per center for an initial five-year year. These integrated, multi-investigator centers, operated by the DOE Office of Science, target “grand challenge” problems in order to transform “the way we generate, supply, transmit, store, and use energy.”

“The EFRCs neatly fit the Bell mantra,” writes LeVine. “Give a group of talented scientists a specific objective, the freedom to solve it how they see fit, a reasonable sum to work with, and let them go to the task. They might fail spectacularly, but Bell thought that was also how they may succeed.”

Next >>

The second piece of Chu’s plan was to establish five Energy Innovation Hubs, each of which receive up to $125 million in funding over five years. Their mission, according to the DOE, is “to shorten the path from laboratory innovation to technological development, and lead the way toward American competitiveness, economic growth and energy security.” Researchers from different labs are simulating nuclear reactors, developing biofuels from sunlight, designing energy efficient buildings, advancing electrochemical energy storage, and enhancing the supply of critical energy materials.

Chu also oversaw the development of Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a DOE incubator project that was modeled after the Defense Department’s DARPA program. As Chu explains, “ARPA-E was designed to support high-risk, high reward technology development; to swing for game-changing home runs that can fundamentally transform energy technologies.”

Many people in science and industry have praised the program. In his ARPA-E Summit Keynote, FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith characterized it as “the best government funding program” he had ever seen.

But not everybody was so happy with Chu’s approach to government/industry collaboration. Republicans launched withering attacks against his handling of the Solyndra loan program after the solar panel maker and four other government-funded energy companies went belly-up on his watch. Some of the comments upon his resignation have not been so kind.

“While many will remember Secretary Chu for his comments about the need to raise gas prices on American consumers and the high grades he publicly bestowed on himself,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa in a statement, “I found taxpayer losses on projects like Solyndra and the department’s deeply misguided effort to use taxpayer dollars as an investment bank for unproven technologies to be the most problematic aspects of his legacy.”

Chu takes responsibility for these “failures” in his resignation letter, but insists there is a larger context. Innovation, he says, requires risk:

The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes. America’s entrepreneurs and innovators who are leaders in global clean energy race understand that not every risk can – or should – be avoided. Michelangelo said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

It’s true the research beds that Chu established are still in their early years, but he believes that they will give life to the same kind of game-changing advances associated with Bell Labs and other legendary institutions. “Some of those goals have been realized, and we have planted many seeds together,” he said in his resignation letter. “Just as today’s boom in shale gas production was made possible by Department of Energy research from 1978 to 1991, some of [our] most significant work may not be known for decades. What matters is that our country will reap the benefits of what we have started.”

His final legacy will have to wait for those decades to pass and demonstrate whether or not his words prove true.

Related Articles

US Energy Secretary Talks Supercomputing

Steven Chu Announces the Scalable Data Management, Analysis, and Visualization Institute

Three DOE Labs Now Connected with Ultra-High Speed Network

Supercomputing Key to US Leadership

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

DoE Awards 24 ASCR Leadership Computing Challenge (ALCC) Projects

June 28, 2017

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) ASCR Leadership Computing Challenge (ALCC) program awarded 24 projects a total of 2.1 billion core-hours at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF). The o Read more…

By HPCwire Staff

STEM-Trekker Badisa Mosesane Attends CERN Summer Student Program

June 27, 2017

Badisa Mosesane, an undergraduate scholar who studies computer science at the University of Botswana in Gaborone, recently joined other students from developing nations around the world in Geneva, Switzerland to particip Read more…

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

The EU Human Brain Project Reboots but Supercomputing Still Needed

June 26, 2017

The often contentious, EU-funded Human Brain Project whose initial aim was fixed firmly on full-brain simulation is now in the midst of a reboot targeting a more modest goal – development of informatics tools and data/ Read more…

By John Russell

DOE Launches Chicago Quantum Exchange

June 26, 2017

While many of us were preoccupied with ISC 2017 last week, the launch of the Chicago Quantum Exchange went largely unnoticed. So what is such a thing? It is a Department of Energy sponsored collaboration between the Univ Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Optimized HPC Solutions Driving Performance, Efficiency, and Scale

Technology is transforming nearly every human and business process, from driving business growth, to translating documents in real time, to enhancing decision-making in areas like financial services and scientific research. Read more…

UMass Dartmouth Reports on HPC Day 2017 Activities

June 26, 2017

UMass Dartmouth's Center for Scientific Computing & Visualization Research (CSCVR) organized and hosted the third annual "HPC Day 2017" on May 25th. This annual event showcases on-going scientific research in Massach Read more…

By Gaurav Khanna

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “pre-exascale” award), parsed out additional information ab Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tsinghua Crowned Eight-Time Student Cluster Champions at ISC

June 22, 2017

Always a hard-fought competition, the Student Cluster Competition awards were announced Wednesday, June 21, at the ISC High Performance Conference 2017. Amid whoops and hollers from the crowd, Thomas Sterling presented t Read more…

By Kim McMahon

GPUs, Power9, Figure Prominently in IBM’s Bet on Weather Forecasting

June 22, 2017

IBM jumped into the weather forecasting business roughly a year and a half ago by purchasing The Weather Company. This week at ISC 2017, Big Blue rolled out plans to push deeper into climate science and develop more gran Read more…

By John Russell

DoE Awards 24 ASCR Leadership Computing Challenge (ALCC) Projects

June 28, 2017

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) ASCR Leadership Computing Challenge (ALCC) program awarded 24 projects a total of 2.1 billion core-hour Read more…

By HPCwire Staff

DOE Launches Chicago Quantum Exchange

June 26, 2017

While many of us were preoccupied with ISC 2017 last week, the launch of the Chicago Quantum Exchange went largely unnoticed. So what is such a thing? It is a D Read more…

By John Russell

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tsinghua Crowned Eight-Time Student Cluster Champions at ISC

June 22, 2017

Always a hard-fought competition, the Student Cluster Competition awards were announced Wednesday, June 21, at the ISC High Performance Conference 2017. Amid wh Read more…

By Kim McMahon

GPUs, Power9, Figure Prominently in IBM’s Bet on Weather Forecasting

June 22, 2017

IBM jumped into the weather forecasting business roughly a year and a half ago by purchasing The Weather Company. This week at ISC 2017, Big Blue rolled out pla Read more…

By John Russell

Intersect 360 at ISC: HPC Industry at $44B by 2021

June 22, 2017

The care, feeding and sustained growth of the HPC industry increasingly is in the hands of the commercial market sector – in particular, it’s the hyperscale Read more…

By Doug Black

At ISC – Goh on Go: Humans Can’t Scale, the Data-Centric Learning Machine Can

June 22, 2017

I've seen the future this week at ISC, it’s on display in prototype or Powerpoint form, and it’s going to dumbfound you. The future is an AI neural network Read more…

By Doug Black

Cray Brings AI and HPC Together on Flagship Supers

June 20, 2017

Cray took one more step toward the convergence of big data and high performance computing (HPC) today when it announced that it’s adding a full suite of big d Read more…

By Alex Woodie

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Just how close real-wo Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the cam Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Pulls Back the Covers on Its First Machine Learning Chip

April 6, 2017

This week Google released a report detailing the design and performance characteristics of the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), its custom ASIC for the inference Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia’s Mammoth Volta GPU Aims High for AI, HPC

May 10, 2017

At Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference (GTC17) in San Jose, Calif., this morning, CEO Jensen Huang announced the company's much-anticipated Volta architecture a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Facebook Open Sources Caffe2; Nvidia, Intel Rush to Optimize

April 18, 2017

From its F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., today, Facebook announced Caffe2, a new open-source, cross-platform framework for deep learning. Caffe2 is the successor to Caffe, the deep learning framework developed by Berkeley AI Research and community contributors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

MIT Mathematician Spins Up 220,000-Core Google Compute Cluster

April 21, 2017

On Thursday, Google announced that MIT math professor and computational number theorist Andrew V. Sutherland had set a record for the largest Google Compute Engine (GCE) job. Sutherland ran the massive mathematics workload on 220,000 GCE cores using preemptible virtual machine instances. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Debuts TPU v2 and will Add to Google Cloud

May 25, 2017

Not long after stirring attention in the deep learning/AI community by revealing the details of its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), Google last week announced the Read more…

By John Russell

Russian Researchers Claim First Quantum-Safe Blockchain

May 25, 2017

The Russian Quantum Center today announced it has overcome the threat of quantum cryptography by creating the first quantum-safe blockchain, securing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, along with classified government communications and other sensitive digital transfers. Read more…

By Doug Black

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of Read more…

By Alex Woodie

DOE Supercomputer Achieves Record 45-Qubit Quantum Simulation

April 13, 2017

In order to simulate larger and larger quantum systems and usher in an age of “quantum supremacy,” researchers are stretching the limits of today’s most advanced supercomputers. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Six Exascale PathForward Vendors Selected; DoE Providing $258M

June 15, 2017

The much-anticipated PathForward awards for hardware R&D in support of the Exascale Computing Project were announced today with six vendors selected – AMD Read more…

By John Russell

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This