Steven Chu
Steven Chu in his office at LBNL (Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt/LBNL)

His full name is Steven Chu. That he’s not a very formal guy is clear from the headline from the news released by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which he currently heads — “Obama Picks Berkeley Lab Director Steve Chu for Energy Secretary.”

President-elect Barack Obama, in his December 18 press conference announcing his environment and energy team, referred to his nominee for Secretary of Energy as Steven Chu. The first time. Thereafter, it was Steve Chu. Or just Steve.

Despite this ease people feel around him, Chu thinks big, looks far ahead, and gets things done. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, at the age of 49, for cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. Before taking over LBNL in 2004, he was a professor of physics at Stanford (and two-term department chair). He has become one of the nation’s foremost and outspoken advocates for scientific solutions to the dual problems of global warming and the need for carbon-neutral renewable sources of energy. He has called these problems “the greatest challenge facing science” and has rallied many of the world’s top scientists to address it. In his four years at LBNL, Chu has focused the laboratory’s considerable scientific resources on energy security and global climate change, in particular the production of new fuels and electricity from sunlight through non-food plant materials and artificial photosynthesis. At the same time, he has boosted the lab’s historic leadership role in energy-efficient technologies and climate science.

Chu was instrumental in bringing to the Bay Area the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a $135 million Department of Energy-funded bioenergy research center operated by a multi-institutional partnership under the leadership of LBNL. He also played a major role in the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which is funded by a $500 million grant from BP.

Now 60 (until late February), Chu earned his undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Rochester in 1970, his physics Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1976, and was a postdoctoral fellow here from 1976 to 1978, when he joined ATT’s Bell Labs, where he did his Nobel-winning research.