Want To Build A Better Battery? Don't Talk To Battery Experts

When MIT Professor Donald Sadoway hires people for his promising battery startup, Ambri, he makes sure they don't have any battery experience.
"I don't turn to experts. The last person I'd turn to is a battery person," Sadoway said Wednesday in an appearance at Northwestern University. "Any battery person would tell me off the bat this is nuts. This can't work. So I disregard it. Instead I bring in novices. They're not ingenues, they're novices. They're novices to the field. They're bright, they're at a place like Northwestern, but they're un-jaded."
Experts are constrained by what they've been taught, Sadoway said, less likely to challenge conventional thinking, less likely than novices to imagine scientific possibility.
Sadoway himself is something of a novice, in the sense that he was a specialist in chemical metallurgy, not batteries, when he invented the revolutionary liquid-metal battery that has attracted more than $50 million in funding from the likes of Bill Gates and the French energy company Total.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a similar remark about experts in the wake of his announcement last month of Tesla's Powerwall and Powerpack, the groundbreaking new line of batteries for homes, businesses and utilities. Much of the negative reaction to Tesla's batteries came from critics doing back-of-the-envelope cost calculations with missing or incorrect variables.
"Some of the analysis we've seen online by people who think they are experts," Musk said, failed to appreciate features of the Tesla batteries, like the inclusion of an inverter or the 15-year expected lifespan.
Like Tesla's Powerpack, Ambri's liquid-metal battery is designed to provide grid-level storage that can supplement intermittent renewables like solar and wind, making a grid that depends on renewables as reliable as one that depends on fossil fuels or nuclear reactors.
Wednesday night, Sadoway welcomed Tesla's entry to the grid-level battery industry. The competition, he said, is not between batteries, but between batteries and fossil fuels.
"It's good to see the announcement because he's got a lot of magnetism and he's raised expectations and awareness," Sadoway said.
But Sadoway is skeptical of lithium-ion batteries in general, especially in large formats.
"Do you feel lucky? Do you want to sit on a 787 with a lithium-ion battery?" he said. "There's only two kinds of lithium-ion batteries: those that have caught fire and those that will catch fire."
Ambri's liquid-metal battery uses molten metals that want to bond, like manganese oxide and antimony, but that can't bond because they're separated by a molten salt. The metals end up indulging their attraction by sending a stream of electrons through a current collector where they can be harnessed.
The liquid-metal battery is cheap because it uses common-earth elements, silent because it has no moving parts, easy to manufacture because it's self-assembling. It's also better than 75 percent efficient, and it's long-lasting—retaining more than 80 percent of its capacity, Sadoway said, for as long as 300 years.
But it has yet to be proven outside of the laboratory.
"Don't believe anybody who is from the battery industry," Sadoway said Wednesday in the Northwestern Chemistry Department's Marple-Schweitzer Memorial Lecture.
"You only believe the customer. Our goal is to get a reliable product in the customer's hands and then let people listen to the customer."
Ambri is about a year away, Sadoway said, from delivering a battery to its first customer.
"I've really been careful to manage expectations because I do not want to get in front of what we really have. And we don't have a battery yet," he said. "I don't want to be in a position where we announce, and then we miss that deadline, and we miss another deadline, and then people say, 'This is just another professor that's giving us a line here. He doesn't' have anything.'
"This is a game with one strike and you're out. Not two, not three, but one…. You've got an entrenched industry that is rooting for you to fail. So you better lead with a strong suit. First at bat out of the park, otherwise it's game over. So that's what I intend to do: just out of the park."
Sadoway's project began with a small amount of internal funding at MIT, then an ARPA-E grant from the Department of Energy, then the big bucks from Total and Bill Gates, who discovered Sadoway, the professor said, by watching his chemistry lectures on MIT's public portal.
Then came a TED Talk and appearances on The Colbert Report and Time's list of the 100 Most Influential.
But so far, no one else has jumped on Sadoway's idea.
"Nobody else is working on this. It's terrific. They all think I'm crazy. They think this is energetically unfavorable. I love it."
Read More:

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.