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Dr. Don Sadoway - Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT

Dr. Don Sadoway

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Would Thomas Edison call him a liar?! Dr. Don Sadoway wants to bring to market a liquid metal battery that could solve many of the integration problems of grid-level power storage and newer forms of power. We’re talking about the ability to store wind power and solar on the grid—it’s a potentially game-changing battery. (Hint: the issue is not capacity; it’s cost!) Russ interviews Dr. Don Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT.

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Russ: This is the Businessmakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com. It's guest time on the show, and straight from the Colbert Report I happen to have Dr. Don Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT. Don, welcome to the Businessmakers Show.

Don: Thanks, Russ.

Russ: You bet. Now, you're well known for lots of things but these days it's this liquid metal battery that you have brought forth and are bringing forth to the market that, based on my knowledge, could solve a lot of the world's grid storage problems. Give us an overview of that.

Don: So this is a technology I invented at MIT about six years ago and it's focused on stationary storage. It has nothing to do with cars. It's strictly for grid-level applications and that's everything from addressing issues associated with today's grid and also issues associated with tomorrow's grid as we attempt to integrate more and more renewables, wind and solar.

Russ: In our other show, we've featured a lot of grid storage attempts in the past, and the problem they're always trying to solve is that in the wind world, these windmills blow all night long when we don't need much energy, and so your battery is designed to efficiently capture that energy and store it for the next day's usage when the demand's up. Do I have that right?

Don: Exactly. Exactly. So the same thing with sun, you know, the idea here is to be able to draw electricity from the sun when the sun doesn't shine.

Russ: I've been around a lot of battery innovators and I don't know, Don, it always seems to me like they're exaggerating. I heard a quote that you used in a recent speech about Edison. Share that quote with our audience.

Don: Edison, in 1883, was commenting about batteries. He was referring to them as storage devices and he says that once a man starts working on the concept of electrical storage, it brings out his latent propensity to lie. I think he also referred to liars - damn liars and battery suppliers. So Edison, you know, he was kidding. He of course spent a good part of his own research efforts on batteries but he also recognized that it was a very difficult problem when you're trying to make batteries that are economically viable.

Russ: Well, and it seems to me that the progress that I've seen is just so small. Somebody comes forward with a new battery and it increases the capacity or the length of life by just minor pieces, but from what I understand about your liquid metal battery, I mean, we're talking about a game-changer here.

Don: I like to think so. The big difference here, Russ, is not that we've got a super increase in capacity. In point of fact, the capacity of the liquid metal battery is actually comparable to a high-performance lead acid, so it's not up there with lithium iron or anything like that but it's addressing the real problem, and the real problem is cost. The reason we don't have batteries on the grid to do what you described earlier is not that they don't exist, it's that they're far, far too expensive; and what I've tried to do with liquid metal battery is to invent a technology that is going to hit the price point of today's electricity market without subsidy. If I'm successful, it will be the game-changer you're referring to.

Russ: Well, we love it when people from academia pay attention to the business world. That's what this show is all about, whether it's viable or not. I've also heard you though explain what triggered the idea to go in the direction that you're doing that is so different. Share that. Our audience loves idea-trigger stories.

Don: So the idea-trigger story here is that when I started thinking about the question of grid-level storage, I realized that the traditional approach to battery research, which is the small cells and maybe eventually making them bigger, just wasn't going to work. It hadn't worked in the past. My other area of research at MIT is in electro metallurgy, the science behind how you produce metals such as aluminum, magnesium, titanium, which are produced by the action of electric currents. So if you go to an aluminum smelter, you've got 500,000 amps running at 4 volts. It's an enormous consumption of electricity, and yet we can make virgin metal for less than 50 cents a pound, and I looked at that and I said, "This is a modern electronic miracle. It's consuming huge amounts of electricity. Is there any way I could make this thing run in reverse so that I could drink-down huge amounts of electricity during the wee hours of the morning, and then during the peak demand in the late afternoon, I could call upon that energy and get at least some of it back?" That was the inspiration that got me thinking about what ultimately became the liquid metal battery. In an aluminum smelter, you've got two-thirds of it. You've got liquid aluminum on the bottom. You've got a molten salt sitting on top of the liquid aluminum. What I did is I got rid of the gas-evolving electrode and replaced it with a metal of different composition, and lo and behold, there's a liquid metal battery.

Russ: Well, we think it's real cool what you've done. You might share with our audience what kind of investors you've attracted so far.

Don: Well, about two years ago I reasoned that we'd gotten far enough along in the basic research at MIT that it was time to accelerate the scale-up and form a company, so I along with two of my former students formed a company. First investor was Bill Gates himself, and I'd met Bill who had come to MIT, he'd been watching my chemistry lectures online and eventually looked at the entire semester's worth, all 35 lectures, and I got this e-mail at one point saying he'd like to come and visit with me. I thought it was a hoax initially but it proved to be the real thing. He came. We spent about 90 minutes together and we talked about a variety of topics including engineering education, distance learning, and we got onto the topic of storage. He was fascinated by my work on liquid metal battery and said, "Listen, if you ever spin out a company, let me know. I'd be willing to put some money into it," and about a year later I approached him and he indeed was our first investor.

Russ: Wow. Well, Don, I really appreciate you sharing your story with us.

Don: My pleasure, Russ.

Russ: You bet. That's Dr. Don Sadoway of MIT, and this is the Businessmakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com.

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