MIT chemist Donald Sadoway opens up about what makes him tick

Donald Sadoway, dressed in a dark suite and a bright blue tie, stand in front of lab equipment.

Donald Sadoway is a materials chemistry professor at MIT who studies the scientific underpinnings for technologies that make efficient use of energy and natural resources in an environmentally sound manner. The overarching theme of his work is electrochemistry in nonaqueous media. Sadoway recently spoke with CICNews editor Sharon Oosthoek in advance of his plenary presentation at IUPAC CCCE 2021 in August.

What has been your biggest obstacle in developing the emerging technologies with which you are most closely associated – liquid metal batteries and molten oxide electrolysis?

I think in both instances, the challenge was to frame the question correctly. In the case of the liquid metal battery there was, and is still, a need for grid level storage. And it’s becoming even more compelling as we see what is going on in the world. Particularly here in the U.S. with the Biden administration pressing very aggressively for the adoption of renewables – for the generation of electricity that doesn’t emit CO2.

As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have the storage to go with the intermittent renewables, it’s ill-advised to even start this journey. But really understanding how to pose the question is important.

I didn’t even use the word ‘battery’ when I started on this. I said I want a colossal, cheap storage device. So that means I didn’t specify the format and I could be creative. Which allowed me to come to the technology via a winding path.

When I came to MIT, I started a program studying the basic electrochemistry of aluminum and other reactive metals that are produced by electrolysis involving salts. That’s how I got introduced to liquid metals and molten salts. So, years later, when I started thinking about grid level storage, I knew I wanted to do something radically innovative.

I also wanted to have fun. In 1994, I went to the Ford company in Dearborn, Michigan and I got a chance to drive an electric vehicle. It was powered by sodium sulfur batteries, which were invented at Ford in the 1960s.

I drove it down the expressway and it was fantastic. I loved that it was 0 to 60 neck-snapping acceleration. I came back to MIT and said, well the only reason you don’t have an electric car is the battery. Sodium sulfur batteries operated at 325°C so they were a poor fit for automotive applications. Everything else is there. I said to myself, ‘You’re an electrochemist, why don’t you do something about it?’

I guess I got into batteries because I grew up in Oshawa Ontario, which is like the Detroit of Canada. I was always fond of cars so after my visit with Ford I started working on batteries. I didn’t care about tailpipe emissions at the time. I was drawn to electric cars by the neck-snapping acceleration.

For the first time in many years, it was fun to drive and I thought, I have to work on the battery. So, I teamed up with a couple colleagues and we developed a soft polymer electrolyte back in 1997. We had lithium metal rechargeable battery – fitted with a polymer electrolyte – but we were way too far ahead of our time. Nobody wanted to touch it. People dismissed the solid electrolyte as not being as conductive as the liquid electrolyte in use.

Eventually in the early 2000s, my attention turned to grid level storage. Then I drew on my experience in what I like to call extreme electrochemistry – my non-aqueous electrochemistry. One of my colleagues actually provided the spark. He said you’ve done all that work in aluminum, magnesium, molten salts. Don’t you think that might be applicable to batteries? I started thinking about that and I liked it. That was the point of departure for me in creating liquid metal batteries for grid level storage.

You are the founder of four companies (Ambri, Boston Metal, Avanti Battery, and Sadoway Labs) that are helping to scale and commercialize your research. Obviously overcame these obstacles. How?

It’s because we’re taking on big problems, that it’s not just some party trick. The students and post-docs that work with me – it’s always been a joy because we’re on this quest. We know we have a higher sense of purpose.

I’m a firm believer in science in service to society. I have the highest respect for the pure chemist, but that’s not me. We rely on the basic knowledge they’ve discovered. They removed the veil – that’s what discover means. It’s all there and it was covered up.

As von Karman (Editor’s note: Theodore von Karman was a Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer, and physicist) said, the scientist discovers that which exists; the engineer creates that which never was. I want to be in that second group.

You’ve said the broad lessons from these emerging technologies are not so much about the technologies themselves, but about how to pose the right questions, how to engage young minds (not experts), how to establish a creative culture, and how to invent inventors in parallel with inventing technology. Can you give me a concrete example of one or more of these lessons in action with respect to your research?

Right around 2010, I came into a large amount of research funding and I had a group of 20 people working on the liquid metal batteries. Of the 20, 17 were novices to electrochemistry.

We were getting quarterly visits from the monitor at the Department of Energy – one of the funders. Because the entire team was new to electrochemistry, our results were terrible. After the third quarterly meeting, the monitor stood up and said, ‘Out of the seven projects in my portfolio, I give this one the least chance of success.’

Of course, the mood in the room sank. He left and I told the group, we’re learning from this. We came upon some references of work that had been done in the late 60s at Argonne National Laboratory and abandoned. I found the one of the people on that project and I brought him to MIT for a couple days. He sat with our people and we trained up to it.

After two years, my team was starting to get somewhere. After three years, they started to work miracles because they didn’t know what they were trying to do can’t be done. It was because we could ask the questions that only a novice is capable of asking, because he or she doesn’t know better.

How did you develop this point of view?

Put me on a psychiatrist’s couch and ask that question – I don’t know!

I grew up in Oshawa and in those days, there was still labelling according to religion. About half of my friends were Catholics and half of them were Protestants. There was a skating rink at the Catholic school across the street from where I lived and only Catholics were supposed to be there.

I was on the skating rink and I was maybe 10 or 11 and these older boys came up to me, asking the question that was so important in those days. “Are you Protestant?” And I truthfully answered no. They said I could stay.

They assumed the world was binomial. If you weren’t Catholic, you must be Protestant. They couldn’t conceive that I could be anything else. I was Orthodox Christian.

I don’t know whether being “the other” can be formative in a good way. But when you bring fresh people in who aren’t steeped in the traditional approach to the program, they see through the fog.