DOE Under Secretary for Science talks investing in Antarctica, national lab system and more: Q&A

Since he was nominated as the Department of Energy’s Under Secretary for Science in July 2017, Paul Dabbar has spent much of the past three years working on maximizing the efforts of the DOE's national labs.

A former investment banker who also ran a nuclear reactor for the U.S. Navy, Dabbar maintains that a "large part" of what the DOE does is still nuclear, running strategic weapons for the country and cleaning up pollution from former nuclear weapons testing areas.

However, there is a good chunk of his time spent allocating funds for research and development of all fields, including studying the deepest parts of the universe and making investments in next-generation technologies such as quantum computing.


(Credit: Dept. of Energy)

(Credit: Dept. of Energy)

Below is a recent conversation with Dabbar. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Fox News: What does the Under Secretary for Science at the Dept. of Energy do?

Dabbar: There are three undersecretaries at the DOE. Most of the DOE is the 17 national labs around the country. Basically, we are the Manhattan project. It was started in New York City and moved out during World War II. The three national labs (Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Argonne) were the original national labs and after WWII, the decision was made to use the footprint for researchers and scientists to have a broader national effort for the federal government to build out.

I basically run a university system, with some 60,000 people who work at the national lab complex. We're the largest research organization in the world, with a non-defense budget of about $18 billion a year. We do research on energy and the broad sciences: mostly materials, supercomputing, physics and some biology. I run that on behalf of the DOE.

I'm also in charge of running operations in the broad complex and allocating research dollars across the national labs. We also fund universities all over the country.

Fox News: Tell me about the investment in Antarctica and what's new about it.

Dabbar: In Antarctica, there's a global treaty that says Antarctica is solely dedicated for research and discovery, so everything we do is based off of R&D. There are three major bases in Antarctica, the largest being 1,000 people and the smallest at 45 people. Palmer, which is at the geographic South Pole, has 100 people there.

The main core of operations was built by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s and we and other federal agencies do research in Antarctica on a number of different things.

At the South Pole station itself, we're putting telescopes to understand and study the universe. It has very low light pollution, it's high up in the atmosphere at 1.7 miles above sea level and almost all of it is ice, making it a great spot for a telescope. It's also very dry, with very low humidity in the air, so the light being collected in the air is not disturbed.

The main telescope in Antarctica is cosmic microwave background (CMB), which looks for the residual light from the formation of the universe. It's a big challenge on how far we can look back. The CMB detector is a form of light in microwave light, so we are able to look back at the formation of the universe right at the Big Bang.

Fox News: How is the CMB helping and enabling researchers to look at the deepest parts of the universe?

Dabbar: At the formation of the universe, both matter and space were created. Space has dimensions and so does matter. At the time of the Big Bang, both were created concurrently. Over the first few hundred thousand years of the universe, that space and matter both expanded. All of the matter was initially contained in a small ball and as that has expanded, the matter formed clumps and the original galaxies were formed. We're using the CMB to map what the early ball looked like.

The telescopes are mapping the universe and the detection technology is doubling in sensitivity and capacity about every two years. There is a constant redesign of telescope detector equipment. Argonne National Lab puts it together and it's shipped to the South Pole and installed. Every two years, there's a 100 percent improvement.

Fox News: The DOE is doing a lot of work with quantum and quantum computing, which allows computers to process exponentially more data than what we're able to now. Tell me about the work you're doing with quantum detectors.

Dabbar: Quantum is about to take off and the new detectors are improving at a pace of doubling every two years. The compute power to evaluate the data is also doubling.

To fabricate all that, it takes equipment and clean rooms, so the time to put it together is not quick. You need a clean room for fabrication and shipping all of that down to Antarctica takes a while. For the vast majority of the year, there is no ability to ship food or equipment and there are 10 people left there during the Antarctic winter to maintain.

So after it's built at the different areas around the country, it's flown down and it takes a few months to install it, an investment that's measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Right now, we're looking at upgrading the 4th-gen CMB telescope.

Fox News: What are some of the potential real-world applications that might come from the investment in Antarctica?

Dabber: Aside from learning how the universe was formed, it's a great example of spin-off technologies, such as nuclear power to nuclear medicine. There are lots of other examples as well, including the human genome project, which came from the DOE.

The tech being developed here has broad applications around quantum and quantum information technology. The whole world is digital, including cellphones and the Internet, all of which came from the federal government. The exact same technology for fabrication for the detectors has foundational support for not just digital technology, but a brand new tech that's parallel: quantum and quantum computing, Internet and sensing.

The tech used for sending in the South Pole will be applicable for quantum computing and quantum Internet. We're just at the beginning of that.

There are also studies that NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is doing, looking at marine mammals and the weather, including research they're doing on what Mars may be like.


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