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Movers And Shakers

Steven E. Koonin

Energy Department’s Undersecretary of Science talks about laying the groundwork for a clean-energy revolution

by Jeff Johnson
July 5, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 27

Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/LBNL
Delia Milliron (left), director of the inorganic nanostructures facility at LBNL’s Molecular Foundry, briefs Koonin on her work.
Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/LBNL
Delia Milliron (left), director of the inorganic nanostructures facility at LBNL’s Molecular Foundry, briefs Koonin on her work.

From “theory of” to “practice of” is how Steven E. Koonin characterizes his shift from being a physics professor, university provost, and oil industry science adviser to becoming a top government energy official.

Koonin’s career in science spans nearly four decades, with most of that time spent as a theoretical physics professor at California Institute of Technology, where he supervised some 25 doctoral students. But since May 2009, he has been undersecretary of science for the Department of Energy, where he oversees all Office of Science activities and serves as the department’s chief research officer.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Koonin, 58, received a B.S. in physics from Caltech in 1972 and a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975. That year, he began his professional career by joining the faculty at Caltech. He served as a research fellow at the Niels Bohr Institute, in Copenhagen, in 1976, and from 1977 to 1979, he was an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow. He became a full professor at Caltech in 1981 and was provost there from 1995 to 2004.

Koonin left academia for the oil giant BP, where he became chief scientist in 2004. He worked there until he joined the Obama Administration in 2009.

Now, thanks to the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, Koonin has some $100 billion in funding at his command to support emerging energy R&D, loans for advanced manufacturing, and loan guarantees for emerging companies as well as firms developing untried but potentially transformational energy ­technologies.

Along with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Koonin believes strongly that the time is ripe to usher in a renewable-energy revolution that should be led by the U.S. In fact, this shared belief brought the two together years earlier, when Koonin was still at BP and Chu was director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and a University of California, Berkeley, faculty member.

In February 2007, BP announced its decision to provide $500 million to create the Energy Biosciences Institute, located near UC Berkeley and LBNL. It was seen as a controversial but potentially valuable investment by a fossil-fuel-based company trying to gain a foothold in the emerging renewable-energy biofuels industry. BP selected UC Berkeley; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and LBNL to be partners in the R&D institute.

As undersecretary of science, Koonin is responsible for several new programs created to spur emerging energy technologies. They include Energy Frontier Research Centers, some 46 small ($2 million to $5 million per year) research programs at university, government, and private labs to study transformative energy technologies; the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which provides funds and direction to inventors hoping to commercialize breakthrough energy technologies; and the energy hubs, which are research centers funded at around $25 million per year to develop emerging energy technologies that can be picked up by the private sector for further R&D.

Koonin’s involvement with DOE stretches back to his time as a graduate student, when he worked during the summers at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1972 to 1975. He is a member and past-chairman of the JASON Study Group, an organization of leading scientists established to advise the U.S. government on defense and warfare science and technology issues.

The undersecretary recently sat down with C&EN Senior Correspondent Jeff Johnson to discuss his career track and his role at DOE.

What led you to a career in science?

From the time I was eight or 10 years old, I knew what I wanted to do, although I didn’t know what it was called. I was always curious about the world—I like to measure things. And when I was a kid I found I was pretty good at math.

Why physics?

I liked science broadly and discovered after a while that physics was more appealing because of its fundamental nature and also because you didn’t have to know too much. You need a few general principles, and you need to be quite clever about how you apply them, as opposed to biology, geology, or chemistry, where you really need to know a lot.

I used to joke that when I was chief scientist at BP, I spent most of my time thinking about geology, biology, and ­chemistry— the scientific, fact-rich subjects I took least often in high school—as opposed to the general principles and cleverness of physics.

When you went to BP, you didn’t have much experience in energy policy. Would you talk about the shift to energy policy from academia and theoretical physics?

A transformative set of events for me came in the late 1980s, when I became involved in national security issues through the Defense Science Study Group, which the Institute for Defense Analyses runs, and then the JASON organization. Both of them opened my eyes, not only to the science and technology that is important for broad national issues but also to the issues involved in bringing science and technology to bear on policy.

Being provost at Caltech for a decade also helped by broadening my exposure to other disciplines, as well as giving me a sense of managing an organization. It was then sort of irresistible, having been in academic administration for almost a decade, to move to BP when the company called in late 2003.

I like to joke that I was the highest paid graduate student in the world for the first year or two at BP. I knew energy was going to be important, I love the multidisciplinary nature of it, and I was ready to try something different.

On the basis of your experience at BP, do you have any advice for the company about its oil spill?

I can’t answer that. I can’t have anything to do with BP for another year because of ethical requirements. When I was with BP, I did go out on Gulf platforms and provided technical advice, but I can’t say anything.

Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/LBNL
Blake Simmons (left), vice president of deconstruction research at DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, talks about tobacco plant growth during a visit by Koonin.
Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/LBNL
Blake Simmons (left), vice president of deconstruction research at DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, talks about tobacco plant growth during a visit by Koonin.

One of your big achievements at BP was establishing the company’s biofuels research program in Berkeley. Is that what BP hired you to do?

The job was significantly broader than biofuels. BP officials said they had a vision of what the energy future would look like, adopting the tagline “Beyond Petroleum” to reflect that vision. They asked me to help them plot out the technology strategies the company should pursue to realize that Beyond Petroleum vision. It was very interesting for me. Biofuels was one of those issues, but we also looked very hard at enhanced oil recovery, carbon capture and storage, and other energy issues. I won’t say I moved the company in these directions—some parts were bubbling along already at a low level—but I had a major role in moving BP forward in these areas.

Did you know Steven Chu when BP was setting up its program?

I have known Steve vaguely for a decade or so, but we really got to know one another in the course of establishing the Energy Biosciences Institute. That was a remarkable moment in my life. We inside BP sort of invented this thing that involves a large coherent focus on one problem, coupling the best academic and industrial researchers to study multiple aspects of that problem. I approached the senior BP leadership about it, and it didn’t take very long before they said, “Go do it” on a scale that I think at the time was breathtaking.

The institute is science-based, “green” in many ways, and certainly has the prospect of being a very good business for BP. I am decoupled from it now because of ethics issues, but the Energy Biosciences Institute exists and is still going very strongly.

I don’t know if this is appreciated, but the institute runs along the same lines as DOE’s three energy bioscience research centers, which were created slightly after BP’s institute. For many of us, it was also an inspiration for the energy hub program that we are now trying to create.

NEW job
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
First at Caltech, then BP, Koonin is now DOE’s top science officer.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
First at Caltech, then BP, Koonin is now DOE’s top science officer.

Can you clarify what the differences are among DOE’s energy hubs, the ARPA-E program, and the Energy Frontier Research ­Centers?

With energy—like other big areas such as food, water, and sustainability—we are trying to affect a larger, ubiquitous system that is a problem in society. Not only do we need new technologies, but we also need to couple those technologies to industries so that the technologies get deployed. Once they are deployed, we need to understand their economic and cultural implications.

The hubs are an experiment really, a mechanism to try to do something big. They are not just a set of little research grants but are a coherent, coordinated push—involving the private sector, the national labs, and industry—to try to develop and then deploy, or at least begin to deploy, a particular technology that will impact society.

ARPA-E is a different beast. It is meant to fund nimble, short-time, high-risk, high-reward projects. It is like a speedboat, compared with an aircraft carrier. So with ARPA-E the emphasis is nimbleness and a willingness to terminate projects even in the short term, right out of the box.

The Energy Frontier Research Centers are more on the fundamental research end of things. They are smaller scale, $2 million to $5 million per year, with only a few researchers working at a university on related projects or on one single topic.

The hubs are just getting under way. Can you explain a bit more about them?

The hubs are meant to put significant amounts of money in the hands of the best researchers. The leadership of these projects will have tactical control of them and can turn individual projects on and off within the hub. There is significant involvement with industry, and it is really meant to lead to commercial deployment. There will be maybe two or, ideally, one physical place where each hub is located, with connections going out to other sites. My vision is that maybe industry will contribute to the research program, or industry will put its researchers on-site, or some academic hub folks will go out to industry for awhile. There are many different ways to have this happen.

We are looking at three hub areas now. One is nuclear energy, where we want to apply current computer-modeling techniques to a nuclear reactor to improve its operating lifetime and encourage more efficient reactor construction. Another area is fuels from sunlight or artificial photosynthesis. We are looking to answer the question, how do we take the sun’s energy and convert it into chemical energy? It’s a basic process that plants do very well, but we haven’t learned how to do it in vitro yet. And third is improving building efficiency, including instrumentation and control of a building’s energy use, which I think speaks for itself.

How does DOE’s Office of Science fit into ARPA-E, the energy hubs, the Energy Frontiers, and other new creations? From the outside, it looks like you are trying to get around the Office of Science, some have said, by supporting more outcome-driven science.

Not at all. Office of Science people are deeply involved in the formulation, selection, and ultimately the management of all the energy hubs, and it goes around the other way as well. DOE Undersecretary of Energy Kristina Johnson and I are trying to promote a closer coupling in the interaction between the Office of Science’s basic research and the applied science and research done by DOE program areas. And frankly, the hubs are one mechanism to do that.

This Administration has pushed hard for renewable energy, but how do you change our fundamental reliance on fossil fuels, which for more than 100 years has defined how we create and use energy?

I am what I’ve learned to call “turquoise.” Not exactly green, but a pragmatic green. Given that 80% of the world’s energy is now supplied by fossil fuels, the energy system changes slowly, and we don’t seem to be running out of any fossil fuels right now, this shift from fossil fuels will be a long-term transformation that may take many decades. What we want is not solutions that are driven by ideology but rather solutions that are driven by our goals, which are to reduce our dependence on imported oil and to cut greenhouse gas emissions.


Now that may mean completely doing away with fossil fuels in the long term, but it may also mean a clever and greener way of using fossil fuels. Carbon capture and storage, for example, doesn’t mean we will get rid of coal, but it does mean that we will not emit as much from the coal. And similarly, vehicle efficiency doesn’t mean we will get rid of oil, but it does mean that we will use a lot less of it.

There are three real drivers for our energy policy goals. One is to reduce dependence on imported oil and reduce oil consumption. The second is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 and some 80% by the middle of the century. The third is to enhance U.S. competitiveness and create jobs as we accomplish both of those other two goals.

Do you play a role in energy education?

I am out and about a lot, talking about energy in public—at universities, industrial conferences, and within the government in both the executive branch and Congress—trying to get the energy facts and some of the more or less obvious implications out. People don’t have a good background to understand energy systems. You are not going to get everybody, but you must try to educate enough people.

In the end, I have come to realize for any decision or any decisionmaker, science and technology—the technical facts—are only one element of what goes into making a decision. As a scientist, I think these scientific facts are the most important, but there are others—economics, politics, culture. What we technical folks can do is try to make the best technical case we can to get society to do the right thing.

How will you measure your success, and what do you hope to achieve by the end of President Barack Obama’s first term?

There are three things I’d like to achieve. One is a better integration of DOE science—basic and applied as well as weapons and nonproliferation science that is within the National Nuclear Security Administration. I want DOE to really start to think of one science and technology enterprise across the whole department.

Second, I’d like to see us provide sound technical input to policy decisions and approaches that are being made, whether they are energy or nuclear weapons or basic research. And third, I’d like to put into place several large technical programs that would draw upon the department’s strength and would have an impact on the energy problems we’re dealing with.

In the near term, when looking for success, what technologies should we be watching?

I think carbon capture and storage is on the cusp of success right now. We need to demo it, of course. I also think batteries are worth watching. We are seeing batteries deployed in hybrid cars and plug-in hybrids, and they will really start to take off as we go forward. There are also interesting opportunities in conventional internal combustion engines, and of course, biofuels are on the cusp.

In others areas, like photovoltaic solar energy, we have a significant research effort ahead of us before we see wide penetration. It is just not economical yet.


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