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Outgoing Energy Secretary Chu heads back to Stanford

Outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is pictured in the audience during a science and technical innovation award ceremony in the East R
Outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is pictured in the audience during a science and technical innovation award ceremony in the East R

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu will return to his comfort zone on the West Coast this spring when he rejoins the faculty of Stanford University to teach physics.

Chu, a Nobel Prize winner who led a tumultuous effort to help spur a clean-energy U.S. economy in his four years at the Department of Energy, announced his resignation on February 1 and said he would stay in the post until his successor was named.

President Barack Obama is expected to nominate nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to replace Chu as early as next week, sources close to the process told Reuters this week.

Chu will hold a joint appointment in Stanford's Department of Physics and the School of Medicine's Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology, according to university officials.

He taught at both Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, earlier in his career.

A self-proclaimed nerd and energy efficiency fanatic who often cycles to work, Chu said he looked forward to being back in academia.

"I want to return to ... the marriage of physics, biology and biomedicine," Chu told the Stanford Daily on Thursday. "That is a very exciting frontier."

While at the DOE, Chu doled out millions of dollars in stimulus funds to support clean energy research. But hard times followed when one of the key recipients, solar-panel maker Solyndra, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee.

Chu, who is the longest-serving energy secretary in U.S. history, defended his record to the end, fighting off charges that his department gave funds to political allies.

Critics of Chu's tenure at the DOE complained that he had an awkward, academic style that made it difficult for him to deliver a compelling message to promote renewable energy and alternative fuels.

Chu said his reappointment to Stanford's faculty will allow him to impart a lesson he learned during his DOE tenure - that communication is a vital part of deploying new technology.

"Using technology to drive down the cost of cleaner forms of energy is only part of it," Chu told the student newspaper. "You have to build a better mousetrap, and people have to be aware that it's a better mousetrap."

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Leslie Adler)