Chu Charged Up by Batteries

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 1: Energy Secretary Steven Chu attends a ceremony at the White House awarding the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation on February 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. Chu announced earlier in the day he is leaving his post. Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Jan. 21, 2014, 2:35 p.m.

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.

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