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  • Dick writes about Earth and planetary science for Science magazine.
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Chu's Tall Tale of Energy Efficiency

6 November 2009 5:20 pm
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It was certainly striking in the telling. But the truth is another story.

Speaking to business leaders at a White House event last week on clean energy and the economy, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was asked what he’s doing to improve energy efficiency at Department of Energy laboratories. Chu launched into a story of gross energy negligence at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which he headed before coming to Washington, D.C.

Chu was looking for unused space at the lab that could be redirected to new projects. Told that none existed, the hands-on director decided, in his words, "to open up every door" to see for himself. On one such tour, Chu "opened up the door to this one lab and it was all dusty. The dust had clearly been there for awhile. And the stuff was on. And I asked, 'What do you use this room for?' "

“Oh, this is a historic room,” his guide replied. Chu then explained at length—and with considerable accuracy—how an instrument in that lab had been used to detect the telltale element iridium that pinned the death of the dinosaurs on a very large meteorite hitting Earth. “But that was 15 years ago, and the equipment is still on,” he told his audience. “That was really sad. The moral of the story, says Chu, is that "personal behavior is very important” in increasing energy efficiency.

Small problem. The historic iridium analyzer in that lab was in use until about 2 years ago, and a couple of computers are still doing science, according to Frank Asaro. Asaro should know; he did the famous impact iridium analyses and kept measuring iridium for archeological studies through his retirement in 1991 and a subsequent heart attack. He says he stopped using it when the instrument broke, a year or two ago.

So nothing was draining power long after it had stopped being used, Asaro says. The 80-plus-year-old analytical chemist doesn't seem to mind pulling the plug on the secretary's story. But he does regret missing the director's visit. And he has no plans to dust.

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