Congress’ Only PhD Physicist Talks Energy Policy And Why It Made Sense For The Obama Administration To Bet On Elon Musk And Tesla


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Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., has served more than a ten years in Congress and is the only current lawmaker with 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 staffersHis mother was an inventor, and his father trained in chemistry before becoming 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 graduated from Harvard with a PhD and worked at Fermilab, which is a national laboratory that studies high-energy particle science. He sold his ownership in the lighting business when he decided he wanted to run for office.

At 19 years old, you can start your own business

This company was started by my brother and me in our basement. We borrowed $500 from my parents. The company [Electronic Theatre Controls Inc.]Today, the United States produces 70% of all theater lighting equipment. We export about a third. Our brilliant idea was to use our newly developed microprocessor for controlling theater lights. This had never been done before. We were able to sell it indirectly to an established player because no one would buy the theater lighting controllers from a 20-year old and an 18 year-old. Then we achieved a major contract to control the Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade’s lighting system. After managing the company for almost a decade, my first love, science, was what I returned to.

Scientific discoveries

My PhD thesis looked for proton decay. This was because theories suggested that protons could be unstable and have a lifespan of 10 to 33 years. To find the protons’ decay flashes, we used a cavern that was six stories in size. It was surrounded with pure water and ultra-sensitive light detectors. There were many disappointed theorists because we didn’t see any proton decay. We discovered something else. Around 160,000 years ago, a bright star in the greater Magellanic clouds exploded, causing a flash and then a burst in neutrinos which reached earth in 1987. The flash of light, as well as the bursts of neutrinos that occurred in our underground detector, was what we witnessed. It was a true triumph. Due to that discovery, I was co-recipient the Rossi prize. This is a top prize in cosmic ray physics. Even though our experiment failed to detect proton decay, it was a huge success for totally 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 finishing my PhD, I spent most my career working for Fermilab. The first ten years of my career were spent building the scientific apparatus that analyzes the collisions and provides data. The actual particle accelerators were my focus for the next ten years. I was part of the Fermilab team that discovered top quark, the most heavy known form, and also helped to invent the permanent magnet-based antiproton recycling 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. Modern electronics include green technology such wind turbines. Rare earth elements are an integral part of many modern electronics. Electric vehicles.

Ensure that the United States has enough rare earth elements

There isn’t a shortage of rare Earths. It’s just a question of where to extract them at the most affordable price. You lose market share quickly if you are the second-cheapest place to extract them. 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. You must then decide how much interference you are willing to make in order to ensure supply chains. Look at the consequences of Europe becoming dependent on Russian natural gas. This is an incredibly reasonable thing to do if your goal was to be a player in the free marketplace. Russia were the lowest cost producers of natural gases. You should therefore buy from them, but ignore the risk.

In 2008’s financial crisis, the risk of simultaneous collapses of all real estate assets in all parts of the country was not adequately quantified by the market. When it comes to government regulation, maturity is a good attitude to risk and markets. There will be times when the market does not accurately price the risk. Government regulations are needed, such as capital requirements for banks to ensure the system can survive them. The same goes for toilet paper production. You’ll need to hire someone to manage your inventory and production capacity if you believe it’s necessary to keep a supply of baby food or toilet paper.

Recycling rare earth materials

There will be enough market value for rare earth permanent magnets that there will be a strong commercial incentive to recycle them. It is the same as recycling catalytic converters, because the rare elements are valuable. There will be a lot of rare earths in the earth over the next 30 years. It will become cheaper to recycle than mine new material.

We need to ensure that our mining operations are right-sized. It’s not an easy task, as there will be money to make in a short-term way. However, if you take over the market and pollute your country, you are going to end up in the same position that the U.S. has in terms of coal and mining wastes. While we want to ensure that we don’t outbid the rest, it will be difficult to capture the market if a country is willing to pollute their land. Understanding these trade-offs is key. We must also understand how the market works and what we can do to make it work.

Foster, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Inventions Caucus and a member the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, was eager to see the transition towards 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.

Rising gas prices

The very high gas prices are causing a lot of pain for many people right now. This is in addition to the secondary economic effects. My view is that we should concentrate on increasing supply temporarily and decreasing demand temporarily. Dropping the federal tax on gasoline won’t change the refining capacities. There is a problem. More people want to drive than there is refining capacity. There isn’t enough refining capacity so someone will have to decide to not drive.

I think most of it will show up in the form of a price hike if that happens, which is why we are discussing a windfall income tax. I hope that, if we do decide to go with something like windfall taxes, it will be a tax that the petroleum companies could avoid if they accelerate the transition of the business to renewable. Due to the rapid adoption of electric cars in America, increasing capacity will be a stranded investment. Most of the refining capacities that we have now will cease to be useful within a decade or so. Therefore, companies are very cautious about increasing their capacity right now because they know it will be a costly investment.

How to prepare for an electric car future

The cost of an electric vehicle is now much lower than what people expected. It is much cheaper to purchase an electric truck than a gasoline truck if you are looking to purchase a Ford F-150 truck. Although the electric truck will cost more, you can save money on your monthly payments by purchasing the electric truck.

Congress will need to be vigilant about what the final charging capacity is away from our garage. You’ll see that battery technology is improving every day. You’ll soon find that you don’t need a charging station anymore and most people will recharge their cars at home. We need to be cautious about investing in charging stations that don’t belong in the right spots. When cars can drive 500 miles per hour, you don’t need to charge your car at every hotel.

We need to ensure that the government’s investments are right for the future, not just for today’s technology. It’s a lot like Wayne Gretzky’s saying that you must skate to where your puck is going, not where it has been. This is very true technologically. Because I have a background in technology and business, I know where the puck is going. That is one of the reasons I feel sometimes useful in Congress.

Investing in energy independence

Research is the most important thing. Many electric cars you see today are powered by cathodes developed at Argonne National Laboratory. Many of the current batteries, as well as many of the semiconductors, were created with federally-funded research.

We should spend a certain amount to cross 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. This is another reason Congress must act like a wise venture capitalist.

The Obama administration placed two large bets on federal taxpayer money 10 years ago. One was that a company called Solyndra had a very good idea about how to make inexpensive solar cells. 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. At the same time, we made a wager of about $400 million on Tesla, a startup that you may have seen.
To build their first car factory. It was a risky venture at the time and Tesla was very close to bankruptcy multiple times. The federal government has benefited tremendously from this bet. The market capitalization of Tesla is approximately half a trillion dollars, if you consider the $400 million we invested in it. This year, the capital gains tax we will collect from Elon Musk will more than cover that risk. It works very similarly to venture capital. You make many bets, many on the future, but most of them won’t pay off. Only a handful of these will change our world.

FOREBES: MOREElon Musk Wants the Electric Vehicle Tax Credit to Disappear; Joe Manchin might Oblige


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