Q&A: MIT Professor Donald Sadoway On The Future Of Battery Storage and Renewable Energies
For over two thousands years, scientists have experimented with ways to capture the energy of the sun. Archimedes in 212 BC, for instance, famously rigged a system of mirrors that was used to spark fires aboard enemy ships—sort of like an ancient heat ray.
Over time, the methods of capturing solar energy have obviously evolved (and perhaps become a bit less dramatic) but there are persisting questions for scientists: How do you best store the energy from the sun, and how do you distribute it cheaply and efficiently at scale?
From my perspective, as a person who cares deeply about the environment and the future of our planet, those questions are among society’s most pressing concerns. Global warming is an existential threat to humanity, and we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But I’m also an investor who embraces the belief that fossil fuels and carbon emissions will eventually be phased out entirely. I’ve been calling it the “clean energy revolution,” and to get there, we must cultivate new ideas, start anew, and listen to the boldest visionaries who are addressing these problems at a global scale.
Recently I had the chance to speak with one of those visionaries: A scientist who has spent an entire career working on (and inventing) grid-level renewable energy storage mechanisms. Professor Donald Sadoway is a current MIT professor, an inventor with over a dozen patents, and a 2012 TIME “Most Influential Person of the Year” for his pioneering research. He has even been called the “Mick Jagger” of battery science researchers, a qualification I asked him about in our conversation. “I'm not sure I'd want to turn Mick loose in my laboratory,” Professor Sadoway told me. “But maybe metaphorically speaking they're saying that I do dare to do things differently.”
And what does he do differently? Professor Sadoway is a bit of a renegade amongst battery researchers. Most industry executives and researchers argue that lithium-ion batteries will pave the pathway to the future of solar storage. Tesla’s Powerwall, for instance, uses rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for stationary energy storage that can power your home through the sun’s rays. The lithium-ion market is projected to be worth $93.1 billion by 2025, according to Grand View research, but Sadoway believes that lithium-ion has limitations that should not be underplayed.
“Nobody in the in the modern world is going to settle for green electricity only part of the time,” he says. “We expect electricity on demand all the time. Wind doesn't blow all the time and sun doesn't shine all the time. The missing piece is storage. Lithium-ion batteries are out there and it works in your phone and in your computer, but no one has ever installed lithium-ion batteries at grid scale unless it was part of some demonstration. The costs are still way too high. I see everything pivoting on the availability of reliable grid-level storage.” (For more on that, watch Sadoway’s TED talk, “The missing link to renewable energy.”
Earlier this year, Professor Sadoway published results of his new battery technology, using liquid metal, in Nature, the world’s preeminent science journal. “The battery, based on electrodes made of sodium and nickel chloride and using a new type of metal mesh membrane, could be used for grid-scale installations to make intermittent power sources such as wind and solar capable of delivering reliable baseload electricity,” MIT’s press release noted. It’s certainly an innovative idea, and one that Sadoway believes could lead us into a new era of sustainable energy storage.
“I consider this a breakthrough,” Sadoway said in the release, “because for the first time in five decades, this type of battery — whose advantages include cheap, abundant raw materials, very safe operational characteristics, and an ability to go through many charge-discharge cycles without degradation — could finally become practical.”
Professor Sadoway has over four decades of experience, and his breakthroughs are coming at a critical juncture for the path to a renewable future. As a global society, we simply need to find better ways to cultivate and store wind and solar energy—before it’s too late.
Read on for our edited Q&A with Professor Sadoway, where he talks about sustainable energy solutions and the future of battery design.
Arne Alsin: In your view, what will it take to wean our society off of fossil fuels, leading to more renewable energy technologies?
Donald Sadoway: What I've learned is that no one is going to embrace any of this clean technology unless it’s going to give you a product that is comparable to what we have now, or even superior to what we have now, and at a price that's comparable to what we have now.
The notion that if I show up and I say look, ‘I can sell you steel that is made with zero greenhouse gas emissions, but it's a little bit inferior to steel that you can buy otherwise, and it's going to it's going to cost a little bit more...’ People won't buy it. And so I've set cost as a factor in the early discovery stage. That's the sort of the weakness of university-based research when when people are just inventing the coolest chemistry... But if what you want to do is to radically disrupt something like the world steel industry or the world aluminum industry, you better think about cost on day one—not on day one thousand.
That's really changed the way I go about conducting even the most early stage research on campus.
Alsin: Would you tell me how your battery differs from lithium—and why it’s potentially better?
Sadoway: The thing that makes this thing so compelling to me and blows the doors off of lithium-ion is that unlike lithium-ion, our data, not only from campus, but from [my startup] Ambri, is that we have battery cells that have been running for over four years with 100% depth of discharge. They've logged over five thousand cycles, and those cells are retaining 99-plus percent of their initial capacity. That means this has the the features that would make it suitable for grid-level storage. Lithium-ion doesn't.
So all we have to do is match lithium-ion for the installation cost and then anybody would be a fool not to choose liquid metal over lithium-ion.
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