Throughout his long career as an electrochemist and teacher, Donald Sadoway has earned an impressive array of honors, from being named one of the time magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People in 2012 to be featured on “The Colbert Report,” where he discussed “renewable energy and world peace,” according to Comedy Central.
What do you personally consider to be your main achievements?
“That’s easy,” he says right away. “For teaching, it’s 3091,” the MIT course on solid-state chemistry that he directed for some 18 years. A basic MIT requirement, 3,091 is also one of the largest classes at the Institute. In 2003 it was the largest, with 630 students. Sadoway, who is retiring this year after 45 years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, estimates that over the years he has taught the course to some 10,000 college students.
A passion for teaching
Along the way, he made the class an MIT favorite, complete with music, art, and literature. “I brought all that enrichment because I knew that 95 percent of the students in that room weren’t going to major in chemistry at all and this might be the last class they’d take in chemistry. But it is a requirement. So they are 18 years old, they are very smart and many of them are very bored. you have to find a hook [to reach them]. And I did it.”
In 1995, Sadoway was named a member of the Margaret MacVicar faculty, an honor that recognizes outstanding classroom teaching at the Institute. Among the communications in support of her nomination:
“Her contributions are enormous and the class is engrossed from start to finish. His lectures are highly articulate yet lively and he has an unusual grace and style. I was impressed by his ability to introduce playful and creative elements into a central conference… ”
Bill Gates would agree. In the early 2000s, Sadoway’s lectures were shared with the world through OpenCourseWare, MIT’s web-based publication of course materials. Gates was so inspired by the lectures that he asked to meet with Sadoway to learn more about his research. (Sadoway initially ignored Gates’ email because he thought his account had been hacked by MIT pranksters.)
Teaching isn’t Sadoway’s only passion. He is also proud of his achievements in electrochemistry. The discipline involving electron transfer reactions is key to everything from batteries to the primary extraction of metals like aluminum and magnesium. “It’s pretty broad,” says John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.
Sadoway’s contributions include two advances on drums. First came the liquid metal battery, which could enable large-scale storage of renewable energy. “That represents a big step forward in the transition to green energy,” António Campinos, president of the European Patent Office, said earlier this year when Sadoway won the 2022 European Inventor Award for the invention in the country category. not belonging to the European Patent Office. .
In “The Colbert Report,” Sadoway alluded to that work when he told Stephen Colbert that electrochemistry is the key to world peace. Why? Because it could lead to a battery capable of storing energy from the sun when the sun isn’t shining, and otherwise make renewables an important part of the clean energy mix. And that in turn could “plump the price of oil and topple dictators around the world without a shot being fired,” he recently recalled.
The liquid metal battery is the focus of Ambri, one of six companies based on Sadoway’s inventions. Bill Gates was the first financier of the company, which was formed in 2010 and aims to install his first battery soon. That battery will store power from a reported 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.
Then, in August of this year, Sadoway and his colleagues published an article in Nature about “one of the first new battery chemistries in 30 years,” says Sadoway. “I wanted to invent something that would be better, much better” than the expensive lithium-ion batteries used, for example, in today’s electric cars.
That battery is the focus of Avanti, one of three Sadoway companies formed last year. The other two are Pure Lithium, to commercialize his lithium-related inventions, and Sadoway Labs. The latter, a nonprofit organization, is essentially “a space to test out radical innovations. Let’s start working on crazy ideas.”
Another focus of Sadoway’s research: green steel. Steelmaking produces enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. Enter Boston Metal, another Sadoway company. It is developing a new approach to producing steel based on research started some 25 years ago. Unlike current technology for producing steel, Boston Metal’s approach (molten oxide electrolysis) does not use the element at the root of steel’s problems: carbon. The main by-product of the new system? Oxygen.
In 2012, Sadoway gave a TED talk to 2,000 people about the liquid metal battery. He believes that talk, which has now been viewed by nearly 2.5 million people, led to increased publicity for his work, and for science in general, in “The Colbert Report” and elsewhere. “The takeaway here is that if you step out of your comfort zone, you’ll be surprised at what can happen,” he concludes.
reflections from colleagues
“I met Don in 2006 when I was working for the iron and steel industry in Europe on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of those materials,” says Antoine Allanore, professor of metallurgy, Department of Science and Engineering. of materials. “It was the same Don Sadoway that you see on the recordings of his lectures: very elegant, very charismatic and passionate about technical solutions and the underlying science of the process we were all investigating: electrolysis. A few years later when I decided to pursue a career academic, I contacted Don and became a postdoctoral associate in his lab. That eventually led me to becoming a professor at MIT. People don’t believe me, but before I came to MIT, the only thing I knew about the Institute was that Noam Chomsky was there…and Don Sadoway. And I felt like it’s a great place to be. And I stayed because I saw the exceptional things that can be accomplished at MIT and Don is the perfect example of that.”
“I had the pleasure of meeting Don when I first arrived on the MIT campus in 1994,” recalls Felice Frankel, a research scientist in MIT’s departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “I didn’t have to sell him on the idea that researchers needed to take his images and graphics more seriously. He got it, that it wasn’t just about pretty pictures. It was an important part of our five-year National Science Foundation project. , Imagine to learn, to bring that concept to the classroom, lucky me!
“Don has been a friend and mentor since we met in 1995 when I was a senior at MIT,” says Luis Ortiz, co-founder and CEO of Avanti Battery Co. “An emblematic story of Don’s insistence on excellence It’s from when he and I met with Bill Gates about the challenges in addressing climate change and how batteries could be the lynchpin in solving them, I suggested we create our PowerPoint presentation. [Microsoft software]. Don resisted. He insisted that we present using Keynote on his MacBook Air, because “it looks so much better.” He couldn’t believe that he wanted to enter that place exclusively using Apple products. Of course, he won the argument, but not without my admonition that there had better be no problem at all. In the meeting room, the former Microsoft CTO asked Don if he needed anything to connect to the display, “we’ve got all those dongles.” Don refused, but he gave me that knowing look and whispered, ‘You see, they know too.’ I ate my crow and we had a great long talk without a problem.”
“I remember starting to work with Don on the liquid metal battery project at MIT, after he had chosen it as the subject of my engineering master’s thesis,” adds David Bradwell, Ambri’s co-founder and CTO. “I was a wide-eyed graduate student, sitting in his office, among his art deco decorations, unique furniture, and stylistic and historical infographics, and from our first meeting, I could see Don’s passion for creating new and creative things, but at the same time practical scientific ideas, and to work on difficult problems, in the service of society.Don’s approaches always seem to be unconventional: wanting to stand out from the crowd, taking the road less traveled, both in terms of his ideas as well as his sense of style. It’s been an incredible journey working with him over the last decade and a half, and I remain excited to see what other new and unconventional ideas he can bring to this world.”