Steven Chu’s Senate Confirmation Looks Certain

It wasn’t exactly a love-fest, but the initial hearing, today, on Steven Chu’s soon-to-be-formal Energy Secretary nomination couldn’t have been more cordial.
Although senators can be a fairly imperious lot, members of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources were respectful — in most cases, downright deferential — towards the Nobel physicist that Barack Obama wants to head federal energy-research and -development enterprises.

Most senators at the hearing asked whether Chu would support a reinvigoration of the U.S. nuclear power industry. Yes, Chu said again and again — as long as work continues on how to cope long-term with nuclear wastes.

How about coal, which powers half of U.S. electricity? Yes, Chu would support continued use of coal — as long as work continues on limiting the release of greenhouse gases and other pollutants from conventional coal burning. Carbon sequestration and cap-and-trade emissions limits were mentioned repeatedly.

Only a couple senators actually showed any interest in research details. Among the few: Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). She asked about the Helios program at the national facility Chu currently heads, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. According to the lab’s website, this renewable-fuels initiative has a heady goal: to “cut across divisions and programs in profound ways to produce transforming technologies in synthetic biology and nanotechnology.” It also seeks to “fuse our core strengths in biological, chemical, and physical sciences in the search for a sustainable carbon-neutral source of energy.”

No wonder Lincoln asked what, in practical terms, this venture actually involves.

Chu explained that the two-year-old program is striving to develop fourth-generation biofuels. To date, researchers at the lab have “trained” bacteria and yeast to take simple sugars and produce “not ethanol, but gasoline-like substitutes, diesel-fuel substitutes and jet [fuel] substitutes.” He says a cadre of “brilliant” scientists who had previously spent most of their careers in basic research is now “very focused on making this technology commercially viable.”

Asked about what type of plant material would be used — since Lincoln was hoping it might be grown in Arkansas — Chu perked up and chuckled: “Now we’re getting to science. I love this!”

Currently, no particular plants are being focused on, but they could include anything from algae and corn stover to grasses and lumber-mill dust and scrap. So Chu reassured Lincoln that her state grows suitable raw materials.

But the real key to making these next-gen biofuels, Chu says, will be figuring out how to design feedstock plants that would grow using fewer energy inputs and prove more robust in the field. The program’s also investigating pretreatments for plant-based cellulosic feedstocks. Their goal: to facilitate the ability of single-cell organisms to break these materials down by separating out and discarding the molecules that plants make to protect themselves from attack by microbes and fungi.

Such a multi-pronged approach looks to optimize all phases of biofuels production with no preconceived idea of which area is likely to offer the biggest payoff. And that, Chu said, “is why I’m so optimistic some real progress can be made.” And rapidly.

Also rapid, the senators implied, would be Chu’s formal confirmation as the next Secretary of Energy.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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