With his fourth new gig since stepping down as Energy secretary last April, Steven Chu is picking up where he left off on a mission to develop more-powerful, longer-lasting batteries.
Chu, 65, this week joined the board of directors of Amprius, a California start-up that is using technology developed at Stanford University, where Chu has returned as a physics professor. The company aims to improve the strength and capacity of the lithium-ion battery, an advanced energy-storage device with a host of potential uses.
"Higher-energy and longer-lasting batteries are in high demand for numerous applications, from consumer electronics to electric transportation," Chu said in a statement announcing his seat on the board. "I look forward to advising Amprius's development of silicon-based anodes, advanced cathodes, and next-generation batteries."
Chu has been preaching the gospel of battery development since before he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 and long before he was sworn in as President Obama's first Energy secretary in 2009. At DOE, he helped funnel billions of federal dollars into battery research, particularly for use in electric vehicles.
Two years ago in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Chu said the key to selling more cars like the General Motors Volt and the Nissan Leaf was to get the battery cost down to around $1,500. At the time, batteries for plug-in hybrids cost about $12,000 each.
Chu expanded on the economics in an interview last fall with Politico, explaining that the price for an electric car's battery is now about $500 per kilowatt-hour of storage, and it needs to be around $160.
"Now, at that price, then you could have the 300-mile, Tesla-like range in a $25,000 car," Chu said. "And if you get something like that, I can see, in suburbia and in cities, electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids just becoming mainstream. If you can plunk down $25,000 to get a car that's comparable to a 40-mile-a-gallon internal-combustion engine at $20,000, you'd buy the plug-in hybrid or the EV. I would. I wouldn't even blink. And that's even with today's gasoline prices."
But the former Energy secretary is not narrowly focused on batteries in his new private-sector career. Last month, Chu joined the board of Inventys Thermal Technologies, a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is working on technology to capture carbon dioxide from power plants that burn natural gas.
"If I thought there was no chance of it working, my compensation in stock options wouldn't be worth anything," Chu said when he joined the board in December.
In addition to his full-time position at Stanford and the leadership positions at Amprius and Inventys, Chu joined another board of directors after he left office last year, for an unnamed company working on the development of biofuels.