A . Paul Alivisatos has been director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) for little more than three months, but he’s already putting his global vision into practice.
Last week, in a series of symposia for lab employees, Alivisatos and his colleagues unveiled Carbon Cycle 2.0, a sweeping initiative to direct the lab’s multitude of research programs toward a common goal: balancing the amount of carbon humans put into the atmosphere with the amount of carbon Earth takes up. As the once-physics-focused lab shifts its priorities to the more interdisciplinary areas of renewable energy and climate-change research, Alivisatos says he hopes some major questions can be answered.
“Today, we don’t have the science base to deal with the problems of the carbon cycle,” Alivisatos tells C&EN. “We just burn fuel and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There’s a lot of important and fundamental science that needs to be developed for us to create a balance in the carbon cycle.”
Just over a year ago, Alivisatos was quite happy serving as deputy director for LBNL’s then-director, physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. But when Chu was tapped to become secretary of energy in the Obama Administration, Alivisatos found himself at LBNL’s helm, first as interim director in January 2009 and then as permanent director on Nov. 19.
LBNL is managed by the University of California, Berkeley, for the Department of Energy. Unlike the two other UC-managed national labs—Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos—all of LBNL’s research is unclassified.
Alivisatos, who is the Larry & Diane Bock Professor of Nanotechnology and a professor in the departments of materials science and chemistry at UC Berkeley, had previously carved out a reputation as a pioneer in nanomaterials development. His group’s methods for producing rod-shaped nanocrystals, for example, have revolutionized the field of nanoelectronics.
He’s held increasingly prominent positions at the lab through the years, directing the Molecular Foundry from 2001 to 2005 and the Materials Sciences Division from 2002 to 2008, and serving as associate laboratory director for physical sciences from 2005 to 2007.
Alivisatos still meets with his students for an hour each day at his UC Berkeley laboratory and then heads to the Berkeley hills to manage LBNL, which includes more than a dozen scientific divisions, six national user facilities (such as the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source), and 4,000 employees.
His focus on renewable energy and climate research builds upon the legacy of his predecessor. For example, Chu initiated LBNL programs in biofuels, battery technology, and artificial photosynthesis (in particular, the Helios project, which Alivisatos directed) as well as carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon Cycle 2.0, Alivisatos says, is an effort to tie those projects together. “The lab is now entering an era where we’re able to think about how to integrate these activities under an umbrella initiative,” he says.
In the long term, he envisions scientists developing energy sources by, for example, harnessing CO2, water, and sunlight for artificial photosynthesis. “We could make a complete cycle, and that would be great,” Alivisatos says. However, science also needs to address the shorter term problems. “We’re burning fuels—releasing 30 gigatons per year of CO2—and we need to do something” to reduce those emissions, he adds.
The best hope for that, he says, could be the development of materials that capture and sequester CO2. “I personally don’t think it will be very easy for us to bring the carbon cycle back into balance during the next few decades, unless we look at carbon sequestration,” Alivisatos says. Basic questions remain unanswered, he notes. For example, what happens to CO2 inside Earth’s crust? Does it react with Earth’s minerals, or does it leak back into the air?
Alivisatos plans to maintain LBNL’s position as a leader in the physical sciences. The lab is perhaps most famous as the home of the Bevatron, the now-ancient particle accelerator with which physicists discovered numerous subatomic species, including the antiproton and antineutron. The Bevatron is now being dismantled, but plans are in the works to use the space to build a free-electron laser that would generate soft X-rays in a tightly collimated beam, having extremely short pulses in the attosecond regime.
Directing a facility like LBNL requires equal parts science and politics. Alivisatos took over the lab’s leadership not only during difficult economic times but also soon after a series of scandals over lavish pay and benefits for high-level UC employees. These scandals, many say, helped lead to the resignation of former UC president Robert C. Dynes. As a result, UC press releases make a point of mentioning Alivisatos’ salary ($417,155) and $8,916 car allowance.
Despite the flagging economy, however, the lab’s funding increased from $590 million in 2008 under the Bush Administration to $652 million in 2010 under the Obama Administration, perhaps a sign that LBNL’s research goals now have high priority.
“This Administration has really focused on this area of renewable energy and climate specifically, and that’s a good thing,” Alivisatos says. He hopes for a long-term governmental investment in these technologies, he says, “because the problems that we’re talking about are not ones that can be solved in a couple of years.”