Local Congresswomen, Entrepreneurs Extol the Value of Bay Area Light Sources

By Mike Ross
September 26, 2012

Two enthusiastic Congressional supporters of scientific research, U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), and a panel of scientist-entrepreneurs who have benefitted from research at Bay Area light sources headlined a Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) meeting held Monday morning at SLAC.

Organized by SLAC and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in conjunction with SVLG, the meeting aimed to show local business leaders how industry and academic researchers are using the three light source facilities – SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource and Linac Coherent Light Source, and Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source – to accelerate groundbreaking discoveries and transformational innovations, and how their companies can also benefit.

The SVLG is a public policy trade association that represents more than 375 of Silicon Valley’s most respected companies in a cooperative effort with local, regional, state and federal government officials to address major public policy issues affecting the economic health and quality of life in Silicon Valley.

The Bay Area’s light sources provide powerful beams of X-ray or ultraviolet light – important experimental tools that no single university or company could afford to operate on its own.  Like other Department of Energy national user facilities, they are open to scientists all over the world who submit research proposals and compete for time on the beam. So long as the results are published and made freely available in the scientific literature, beam time is free; companies that use the facilities for proprietary research pay the full cost of running their experiments.

The light sources rely chiefly on Congressional funding; and Eshoo and Lofgren are among the strongest supporters of science and technology funding in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s not hard to get Congress to stand up for science, but you need agitators,” Lofgren said. “Anna and I see ourselves as those agitators. Our job is to protect scientists from budget cuts, micromanagement and diversions into purely military applications.”

Riffing on their first names, Eshoo said, “Silicon Valley is covered in Congress from A to Z.”

SLAC Director Persis Drell and Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos then gave the nearly 50 executives in attendance a quick “X-ray 101” tutorial.

“Why should we be interested in X-rays?” Drell asked. “Because they can penetrate and tell us where atoms and electrons are,” information that is critical to understanding and developing new materials needed for more effective drugs, longer-lasting batteries and numerous other practical applications.

With the advent of LCLS, which produces pulses lasting only 10 femtoseconds – 10 millionths of a billionth of a second – “time is the new frontier,” Drell said. “That’s the time scale of a chemical reaction.”

A major goal of many light source scientists is a detailed, step-by-step explanation of nature’s most fantastic chemical reaction: how leaves store the energy from sunlight for later use. Researchers hope to learn from this process how to efficiently generate and store solar power. Alivisatos dubbed the quest, “Photosynthesis – the Movie.”

“The Bay Area will be the leader in light source science for decades to come,” Alivisatos said, with an expansion of SLAC’s LCLS – called LCLS-II, scheduled to start operation as soon as 2018 – and the Next Generation Light Source, proposed for the end of this decade at Berkeley Lab. NGLS is designed to deliver X-ray pulses at a rate 10,000 times faster than LCLS. 

The panel focused on the benefits that four local companies have received from the brilliant X-rays produced by SSRL, LCLS and ALS.

“We’re highly dependent on those light sources,” said David Bushnell, a senior research associate in Stanford Nobel laureate Roger Kornberg’s lab and also a project leader at the drug discovery startup Cocrystal Discovery, which is designing drugs to combat three viruses – Hepatitis C, human rhinovirus and influenza. Atomic-structure information gathered at light sources enables Cocrystal scientists to reduce 10-fold the number of compounds they test, Bushnell said, thus greatly speeding up the company’s drug-discovery process.

The Bay Area’s light sources have not only excellent equipment, but also experts who are happy to help you, said Brian Hardin, co-founder of PLANT PV, an early-stage company developing new materials and device architectures for affordable photovoltaic cells.

“National labs can perform unique experiments that help solve R&D issues very quickly,” he said, citing a thorny contamination problem that SLAC’s Mike Toney helped him overcome in less than two weeks of research at the SSRL.

Harry Levinson, senior fellow at GLOBALFOUNDRIES, which bills itself as the world’s first full-service semiconductor foundry with a truly global footprint, described how light sources around the world are aiding chip makers.

Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science at Stanford and SLAC – and founder of Amprius – said light-source X-rays enable his researchers to see atomic-scale details of how innovative lithium-ion battery designs work without taking them apart. He is leading an effort to use new materials and structures to make lithium-ion batteries last longer while also becoming safer and more affordable.

The meeting ended with an hour-long tour of LCLS led by Uwe Bergman, LCLS deputy director.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group dates back to the summer of 1977, when Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard asked a number of his fellow CEOs to join him in creating a proactive voice for Silicon Valley businesses. Packard believed that local employers should be actively involved in working with government to find innovative solutions to issues like transportation, housing, permit streamlining, education and the environment. The result was the formation of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, which in 2005 changed its name to Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

Monday’s meeting at SLAC was moderated by Carl Guardino, the group’s chief executive since 1997.

Eshoo has represented Palo Alto’s congressional district since 1993; Lofgren has represented parts of San Jose and Santa Clara County since 1995. After 10 years on the House Committee on Homeland Security, Lofgren said she’s excited to be returning to the Science Committee, where she will be the second-ranking Democrat in seniority. Eshoo has served on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee since 1995.

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Persis Drell sharing a laugh with Congresswomen Eshoo and Lofgren
The meeting brought together DOE lab leaders, business leaders and lawmakers from the area. From L to R: Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos, SLAC Lab Director Persis Drell and U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren. (Photo by Matt Beardsley)