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Innovating Dirt-cheap: What Sadoway Can Teach Us about the Future of Clean Energy

When it comes to alternate power sources and batteries, Donald R. Sadoway, John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is the man to turn to. Voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, Sadoway is not only known for his packed classes, despite being one of the largest in the history of the institute, but for the pieces of wisdom he imparts when simply speaking about batteries. Here are a few of my favorite Sadoway quotes and what I believe they can teach us about the future of clean energy.

1. “How do we attack important problems? Pose the right question.”

I tackled this in my piece The Inherent Opportunity in Today’s Energy Poverty Crisis.  As the world’s energy demands continue to rise at alarming rates while the necessity to help the energy poor becomes increasingly acute, the right question is not only how do we meet these soon-to-be colossal energy demands but how do we so sustainably.

2. “The liquid metal battery story is more than an account of inventing technology. It's a blueprint for inventing inventors.”

This is an often overlooked and yet ubiquitous truth. Whenever dealing with innovation it is important to remember it’s not just about the technology, it is about nurturing a culture of innovation. It’s about investing in people who can maximize any technology’s potential, adapt it efficiently to current circumstances and ensure its appropriate future development. It’s about creating inventors of technology who can use what they have learned to tackle new problems and develop new technologies. The bottom line is: more energy inventors moulded, more energy inventions made.

3. “In a battery, I strive to maximize electrical potential. When mentoring, I strive to maximize human potential.”

This one follows through on the previous quote emphasizing once more the importance of human capital. The future of clean energy does not lie in any particular technology, it lies in our inventors’ ability to continue to harness whatever evolving resources are available in order to develop better and cleaner ways to meet our energy needs.

4. ”If you want to make something dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt. Preferably dirt that’s locally sourced.”

If we want innovation in energy to truly benefit humanity we have to make sure it is available to all. What better way to do that than to make it cheap and locally sourced? This quote is also the inspiration for the title of this piece as it also represents a key element of Sadoway’s work. Instead of trying to invent a product and then struggle to make it economically viable, Sadoway opted instead to develop a battery that would meet the pricing point of the electricity market upon creation. This is the reason why he looked only at earth-abundant materials that would work well with cheap manufacturing techniques. Dirt-cheap innovation indeed!

5. “If we're going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can't just conserve our way out. We can't just drill our way out. We can't bomb our way out. We're going to do it the old-fashioned, American way. We're going to invent our way out, working together.”

This one encompasses my two favorite methods of dealing with any problem: innovation and cooperation. It is important to note that when Sadoway began his work on the liquid metal battery, he purposely ignored many established paradigms in his own field and chose instead to reach across disciplines to generate new insight. Indeed, the future of clean energy lies in joining forces and coming up with ingenious ways to harness our many resources in ways that harm none and benefit us all. Truly, can there be a more noble all-encompassing view of a clean energy future?

Donald Sadoway has cofounded grid-scale energy storage company Ambri

Lead image: Classroom via Shutterstock

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