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!

China Plans 2019 Exascale Machine To Grow Sea Power

August 23, 2017

The glory of having the world's fastest supercomputer, as measured by the Linpack benchmark, has been China's for four years running, first with the 33-petaflops Tianhe-2 and currently with the 93-petaflops TaihuLight. T Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Microsoft, Intel Unveil FPGA-driven Project Brainwave

August 23, 2017

We know about the seeming light-speed processing power of FPGAs and the natural fit they pose for data-dense AI workloads. But we also know that FPGAs present usability and programmability problems that flummox IT shops. Read more…

By Doug Black

Study Identifies Best Practices for Public-Private HPC Engagement

August 22, 2017

What's the best way for HPC centers in the public sphere to engage with private industry partners to boost the competitiveness of the companies and the larger communities? That question is at the heart of a new study pub Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Leveraging Deep Learning for Fraud Detection

Advancements in computing technologies and the expanding use of e-commerce platforms have dramatically increased the risk of fraud for financial services companies and their customers. Read more…

Google Launches Site to Share its NYC-based Algorithm Research

August 22, 2017

Much of Google’s algorithm development occurs in groups scattered throughout New York City. Yesterday, Google launched a single website - NYC Algorithms and Optimization Team page - to provide a deeper view into all of Read more…

By John Russell

China Plans 2019 Exascale Machine To Grow Sea Power

August 23, 2017

The glory of having the world's fastest supercomputer, as measured by the Linpack benchmark, has been China's for four years running, first with the 33-petaflop Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Microsoft, Intel Unveil FPGA-driven Project Brainwave

August 23, 2017

We know about the seeming light-speed processing power of FPGAs and the natural fit they pose for data-dense AI workloads. But we also know that FPGAs present u Read more…

By Doug Black

Study Identifies Best Practices for Public-Private HPC Engagement

August 22, 2017

What's the best way for HPC centers in the public sphere to engage with private industry partners to boost the competitiveness of the companies and the larger c Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tech Giants Outline Battle Plans for Future HPC Market

August 21, 2017

Four companies engaged in a cage fight for leadership in the emerging HPC market of the 2020s are, despite deep differences in some areas, in violent agreement Read more…

By Doug Black

Microsoft Bolsters Azure With Cloud HPC Deal

August 15, 2017

Microsoft has acquired cloud computing software vendor Cycle Computing in a move designed to bring orchestration tools along with high-end computing access capabilities to the cloud. Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. Read more…

By George Leopold

HPE Ships Supercomputer to Space Station, Final Destination Mars

August 14, 2017

With a manned mission to Mars on the horizon, the demand for space-based supercomputing is at hand. Today HPE and NASA sent the first off-the-shelf HPC system i Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AMD EPYC Video Takes Aim at Intel’s Broadwell

August 14, 2017

Let the benchmarking begin. Last week, AMD posted a YouTube video in which one of its EPYC-based systems outperformed a ‘comparable’ Intel Broadwell-based s Read more…

By John Russell

Deep Learning Thrives in Cancer Moonshot

August 8, 2017

The U.S. War on Cancer, certainly a worthy cause, is a collection of programs stretching back more than 40 years and abiding under many banners. The latest is t 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

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

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

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

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

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

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

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

Leading Solution Providers

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

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

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

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

Top500 Results: Latest List Trends and What’s in Store

June 19, 2017

Greetings from Frankfurt and the 2017 International Supercomputing Conference where the latest Top500 list has just been revealed. Although there were no major Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Clears Path to 5nm with Silicon Nanosheets

June 5, 2017

Two years since announcing the industry’s first 7nm node test chip, IBM and its research alliance partners GlobalFoundries and Samsung have developed a proces Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Singularity HPC Container Technology Moves Out of the Lab

May 4, 2017

Last week, Singularity – the fast-growing HPC container technology whose development has been spearheaded by Gregory Kurtzer at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab Read more…

By John Russell

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