Congress’ Only PhD Physicist Talks Energy Policy And Why It Made Sense For The Obama Administration To Bet On Elon Musk And Tesla
Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) has spent more than a decade in Congress and is the only current lawmaker to hold a PhD in physics. “One of the reasons I feel occasionally useful in Congress is actually having some background in business and technology, I have some idea of where the puck is going,’’ says the 66-year-old lawmaker representing the state’s 11th congressional district, which includes parts of five counties roughly 30 miles west of Chicago.
He serves on the House Financial Services Committee as well as the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where he chairs the task force on artificial intelligence and describes himself as “a scientist, businessman, and the son of a civil rights lawyer.” He has credited his family background with contributing to his varied career: both his parents worked as congressional staffers, his mother came from a family of inventors, and his father trained as a chemist before working as a civil rights lawyer.
Foster sat down with Forbes to talk electric vehicles, energy policy and rare earth mining – as well as to walk through his background as a teenage businessman-turned-physicist. His pragmatic philosophy: “When you’ve got a technology that kind of works, it’s at the threshold of being commercially viable and because of the benefits to the country from developing that technology, it’s worth the federal taxpayer to put some money into it. And this is another situation where you really have to have Congress acting like a very wise venture capitalist.”
The following excerpts of Foster’s responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Foster’s professional experience began at age 19, when he started a theater lighting company with his younger brother. After a few years, he returned to his “first love” – science. He earned his PhD from Harvard and went on to work at Fermilab, a national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics. When he decided to run for office, he sold his interest in the lighting company.
Getting into business at age 19
My little brother and I started this company in our basement with $500 from my parents. The company [Electronic Theatre Controls Inc.] now manufactures about 70% of the theater lighting equipment in the United States, and exports about a third of what we manufacture. We had the bright idea of using the newly invented microprocessor to control theater lights, which had not been done previously. After selling it indirectly through an established player, since no one was going to buy their theater lighting controller from a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old, we had a breakthrough when we got a big contract to do the control system for the Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade. After running the company for about most of a decade, I then returned to my first love, which was science.
Making scientific discoveries
My PhD thesis was looking for something called proton decay, because there were theories that predicted the proton may be unstable, with a lifetime of 10 to the 33rd years. We used a cavern the size of a six-story building with pure water surrounded by ultra-sensitive light detectors to look for the flashes when protons would decay. We didn’t see proton decay, so there were a lot of disappointed theorists. But we found something else: about 160,000 years ago, a star in the greater Magellanic cloud blew up, causing a flash of light and a burst of neutrinos that reached the earth in 1987. We saw the flash of light and we saw the burst of neutrinos in our underground detector, which was a real triumph. Because of that discovery, I ended up being the co-recipient of the Rossi prize, a top prize for cosmic ray physics. So our experiment, even though it failed to find proton decay, was a very big success for completely unrelated reasons. One of the wonderful things about science is that you keep your eyes open and you’ll find wonderful new things about the world.
After completing my PhD, I spent most of my career working at Fermilab. I spent about the first 10 years working on building the scientific apparatus to analyze the collisions and the data. The next ten years I spent working on the actual particle accelerators. During my time at Fermilab, I was on the team that discovered the top quark, which is the heaviest known form of matter, and helped invent the permanent magnet-based antiproton recycler ring.
Foster, who worked with “nominally” rare earth strontium ferrite permanent magnets, expressed concerns the U.S. has become over-reliant on foreign supply chains for rare earth elements. Rare earth elements are an essential component of many modern electronics including green technology such as wind turbines and electric vehicles.
Ensuring the U.S. has sufficient rare earth elements
There’s not really a shortage of rare earths, it’s a question of where is the cheapest place to extract them. If you’re the second cheapest place to extract them, you tend to lose market share pretty rapidly. That’s one of the reasons why the Western world may have gotten itself in trouble by becoming over-reliant on supply chains from countries we don’t necessarily trust these days. Then you have to face the difficult question of how much you’re willing to interfere with the natural functioning of the free market in order to secure supply chains. If you look at what Europe has done getting very dependent on natural gas from Russia, that is something that is a very reasonable thing to do if you were just a player in the free market, because they were the low cost producers of natural gas, and you should buy from the cheapest producer, but you ignore the risk.
You saw that in the financial crisis of 2008, where the risk of having a simultaneous collapse of real estate in all areas of the country was a risk that was not properly quantified by the free market. A mature attitude toward risk and markets if you’re talking about government regulation is to acknowledge that there are going to be times when the free market doesn’t price the risk adequately and needs government regulations, like capital requirements for banks to make sure the system can survive them, the same way that you need to make sure that there’s enough excess capacity to make toilet paper. If you think it’s important to maintain a supply of toilet paper, or baby food, or whatever the product is, you’re going to have to pay someone to keep around inventory or production capacity that will not be paid for by the free market.
Recycling rare earth materials
The market value for things like rare earth permanent magnets will be high enough that there will be a huge commercial incentive to recycle, the same way we recycle catalytic converters today, just because the rare elements of that are worth a lot. Over the next 30 years, there will be a large amount of rare earths extracted from the earth, at which point it will be cheaper to recycle than to mine new material.
We have to make sure that we rightsize the mining operations. It’s a tough thing because there will be money to be made in a transient way by having control over those resources, but if you capture the market by polluting the heck out of your country, you’re going to be stuck with a situation like the U.S. is stuck with in terms of coal and mining tailings. We want to make sure that we don’t underbid the rest of the world by lowering our environmental regulations, but that also means it’s going to be very difficult to capture the market if one country is willing to pollute its land to do so. We’re going to have to just understand those trade-offs and make sure that what decisions we make as a country understand the reality and the extent to which we’re going to have to do something, rather than just depend entirely on the free market to allocate.
As co-chair of the Congressional Inventions Caucus and member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Foster has been eager to watch the transition to electric vehicles. He credits the Obama administration with betting big on clean energy – and wants Congress to continue to invest in the technology of tomorrow.
Soaring gas prices
A lot of people are suffering from the very high gas prices right now and all of the secondary effects it has on our economy. What I think we should focus on is increasing the supply on a temporary basis and reducing demand on a temporary basis. If you drop the federal tax on gasoline, that’s not going to change the refining capacity. The problem is more people want to drive right now than we have refining capacity in the country. There’s not enough refining capacity, and someone’s going to have to decide not to drive.
My guess is that most of that will just show up as a price increase if you do that, which is the motivation for discussing a windfall tax. My hope is that if we do go with something like a windfall tax, that will be a tax that could be avoided by the petroleum companies if they speed the transition of their business to renewable. The current difficulty is that increasing capacity is going to be a stranded investment because of the rate of adoption of electric cars in the United States. Within a decade or two, most of the refining capacity that we have in place now will have no use. So companies are correctly very leery about increasing capacity now knowing that it’s going to be a stranded investment.
Preparing for an electric vehicle future
The crossover between the cost of an electric vehicle and a gasoline powered or diesel powered vehicle has happened much more quickly than people anticipated. If you want to buy a Ford F-150 truck in Illinois, it is significantly cheaper to buy an electric truck rather than a gas truck. While the electric truck costs more out of the box, the monthly payment, when you correct for the difference in gas prices versus electricity price, actually saves money in the very first month by buying the electric truck.
Congress is going to have to keep an eye on what is the ultimate need for charging capacity away from our garage. As battery technology continues to get better, you’re going to find that ranges will go up and up. Soon, you’ll reach the point where you very rarely need a charging station and almost everyone will do almost all their driving by recharging at home. So that means we have to be careful not to over-invest in charging stations that are not in the right places. If you get to the point where cars have driving ranges of 500 miles, which is within sight, then you’re going to really only need to have a charging station at the hotels that you stop at where you can recharge your car overnight.
We have to make sure that the investments that the government makes are the right investments, not so much for the state of technology today, but for the technology of the future. It’s very much like the great Wayne Gretzky said, you have to skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been, and that’s very true technologically. One of the reasons I feel occasionally useful in Congress is actually having some background in business and technology, I have some idea of where the puck is going.
Betting on energy independence
The most important thing is research. Many of the electric cars that are driving around use cathodes that were developed in Argonne National Lab. A lot of the basic chemistry for the batteries that are in use today, a lot of the semiconductors that are used, the other real step forward in electric cars, those were developed with federally funded research or federal contracts to suppliers for products that didn’t quite yet make commercial sense.
There’s some amount of money we should spend to bridge the valley of death. This is when you’ve got a technology that kind of works, it’s at the threshold of being commercially viable and because of the benefits to the country from developing that technology, it’s worth the federal taxpayer to put some money into it. And this is another situation where you really have to have Congress acting like a very wise venture capitalist.
About 10 years ago, the Obama administration made two big bets with federal taxpayer money. One of them was, there was a company with a not unreasonable idea on how to make cheap solar cells called Solyndra. It went bankrupt and took with it about $300 million of federal taxpayer money because that was a venture capital bet by our government that didn’t pay off. But at about the same time, we also made about a $400 million bet on this startup company that you may have heard of called Tesla