Donald Sadoway is an emeritus professor of materials chemistry at MIT and the chief science advisor at Ambri Incorporated, a molten-metal battery company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this episode, Sadoway explains why lithium-ion batteries are so dangerous, why we need to develop batteries with super-cheap ingredients, Ambri’s decade-long road to commercialization, the origin of the neodymium-iron-boron magnet, coercivity, and why iridium is his favorite element.
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast, we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I think we’re going to cover most of those issues today with my guest. Donald sat away. He is an emeritus professor of materials chemistry at MIT and a co founder of a battery company called Ambree. Don, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Donald Sadoway 0:25
Pleasure to be here.
Robert Bryce 0:27
Now we met in Houston, I’m guessing maybe 14 years ago or something. And we started talking about batteries. And we’ve been in touch since I’ve been in your, your lab at MIT. I didn’t, I didn’t warn you. But guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So I’ve given your title. But if you don’t mind, imagine you’ve arrived somewhere you have 30 or 40 seconds to introduce yourself. Go?
Donald Sadoway 0:48
Sure. So um, Donald sat away. For many years, a professor of materials chemistry at MIT. And in my research, I was always involved with electrochemistry, metal production, aluminum, magnesium, titanium. And then about 2530 years ago started getting intensively involved in batteries. And I’ve always been a little bit of a contrarian, I don’t follow the pack, and look at radical innovation in battery chemistry. And then along the way, got pulled into startup companies, with my students. And just recently of transition from MIT to yet some other startup companies in the battery space. I think that’s, that’s enough. Okay, I can probably, I could probably say that. In 2012, I gave a TED talk, and then was named by Time Magazine, one of the 100 most influential people in the world, but what’s not talking about that?
Robert Bryce 1:52
Okay, well, we’ll, we’ll just ignore that. I’m not on that. Ignore that. Yeah, yeah, I’ll just ignore that. But it’s good of you to just drop that. So we’ve talked many times. And I think the last time we talked on the phone, you were in Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago. We’ll come back to that. The question I’ve been that we talked about, I warned you, I’m gonna ask you. So why do batteries still stink? Why? What is it about batteries that just make them you know, so finicky, not not too hot, not too cold? can’t charge them just too fast can discharge? Why are they still terrible?
Donald Sadoway 2:23
Well, electrochemistry is very complex. I mean, people look at the battery. And they think of it as kind of a, you know, the Rodney Dangerfield of science doesn’t get any respect. But when you try to invent a battery, and upscale the battery, manufacture it reliably, make sure that it doesn’t fail in service, then you realize just how complex it is. And there’s no Moore’s Law for batteries. No, Moore’s law is the one that applies to semiconductors that every so many months, the power of double, and so on and so forth. With a battery, if you want to improve the performance of a battery, pretty much talking about changing the chemistry. And that’s, that’s the big leap. And, and people want reliability, they want to be sure that the thing will perform. And so it’s a long journey. I mean, with liquid metal battery, which I invented at MIT in the, oh say around 2007 or so. We started Ambree in 2010. It’s now 2022. And it’s probably going to be another year before we’re able to release the first product to customer hands. Not because we’re lazy or stupid. It’s so much work to invent the not only the battery chemistry, but the manufacturing process, the manufacturing tools, and then testing and so on in the industry. So conservative mean, if I say, based on what we’ve done in cycling these batteries safer for five years at temperature, deep discharge. We forecast that this these things will last for 20 years, and still retain over 90% of their nameplate capacity. Most people in the industry will say what do you have 20 years of data? I said what if you project what we have for five years that’s what you get? They don’t they’re not convinced that you have five years of data on on day one of year six, the whole thing falls off a cliff. So the standards are really really high. So that’s why you don’t see a knavish look. When was the last time there was a new battery chemistry that was released that was in the early 90s with the lithium ion lithium ion it’s you know 30 years old
Robert Bryce 4:44
which was Why is there nothing to John good now here University of Texas was one of the CO inventors of that battery that’s a long time ago.
Donald Sadoway 4:52
Well John good enough did the good now he made that he made the discovery of the lithium cobalt oxide which which was So the cornerstone of that battery chemistry, no question about it. And then there were a couple other Stan Willingham and then Yoshino and in Japan and you put those three brains together and outcomes the lithium ion battery was, by the way, by the way, let me just tell the story that. So, so this fellow at Sony had figured out that they could make this rechargeable rechargeable lithium ion battery that had 50% more capacity than the nickel metal hydride battery. And Sony went to the battery manufacturers, which are all in Japan in those days. And nobody wanted to build that battery. They said, we have plenty of investment in nickel metal hydride, we don’t know anything about this new battery. Even so
Robert Bryce 5:50
Sony even though it had better energy density, even
Donald Sadoway 5:53
ahead, they just didn’t want to take chances with it. And so Sony did the unprecedented move, which was to to build the first manufacturing facility for lithium ion batteries. Because they were building the batteries for their little Walkman and handy. They call them handycams. Their handheld cameras. Right. And and then right around that time was sort of the first ascendancy of cell phones and weren’t smartphones, they were just little little handheld like candy bars or Yeah, flip phones at the brick phone. Yeah, I remember. Yeah. And then so they all of those manufacturers said forget nickel metal hydride. Let us let us go with the lithium ion. And so you know, Where’s where’s the research going to come from? Is it going to come from radical innovation from the battery industry?
Robert Bryce 6:43
No, we’ll see what you’re saying. You’re saying? Probably not. Well, let’s come back to lithium ion what tell me about an MRI because now what I’m going to I’m going to remember it’s going to probably be wrong, but your battery work. The one of the base metals of yours. One of the main metals using is nickel, and you’re operating at 800 degrees Fahrenheit, something like that. Am I remembering correctly? Yeah. Okay, so walk me through walk me through the chemistry and why why the Ambree battery is better what is the, as I see, I think you said if you want to make batteries cheap as dirt you have to use dirt in the battery is. So walk us through that if you don’t mind.
Donald Sadoway 7:19
Sure. So the Ambree battery, it’s called the liquid metal battery. So, it in contrast to other batteries that people are familiar with, which have solid electrodes, and then in between those solid electrodes is a liquid not that liquid is called the electrolyte. So with the liquid metal battery, the electrodes are liquid and the electrolyte is liquid. And I chose these in such a way that so you operated elevated temperature could be you said 800 degrees F I haven’t thought enough for a long time, except when I look at the thermometer at the house, but these are operating around 500 degrees centigrade, okay. And so, so, one of the one of the electrodes could be something like magnesium, liquid magnesium, and the other electrode is liquid antimony. And the one of them is really good metal and the other ones are really poor metal. And then in between, we put a molten salt that contains a something like magnesium chloride. And the the metals the liquid metals are insoluble in the salt, and the salt is insoluble in the metal. So these three components, they stratified Slike, salad, oil and vinegar, they one lies on top of the other. So imagine set a salad oil and vinegar, you have to get a third liquid, I’d say put in a drop of mercury or something Mercury would sink to the bottom you’d have your oil, your vinegar and then your oil on on the top right. And so what that means is that when you when you want to discharge the battery, the magnesium wants to alloy with the antimony but it goes into the salt as magnesium ion and then it sends electrons through the external circuit. And so the magnesium layer gets thinner, and the antimony layer gets thicker, deeper. And that’s that’s the discharge and that means that there’s none of the failure mechanisms that you see in the lithium ion battery. And nothing in that battery is flammable. And then when you charge the battery, you send them in cesium back and it rises to the top and now you have pure magnesium on the top pure antimony on the bottom and the salt has been purified and you return the battery to its initial pristine state and back and forth.
Robert Bryce 9:58
Well that’s great. I Like the way you’ve described, so what’s the casing you just re using regular mild steel? How are you containing all these hot these molten molten molten metals?
Donald Sadoway 10:07
Well, there are different steel alloys. We use mild steel for some components. And then other instance for for some parts of the casing, it’s a it’s a stainless steel but it’s steel it’s there’s, there’s nothing like molybdenum or tantalum or anything like that. So,
Robert Bryce 10:25
no titanium so they but again, the goal is, and I’m familiar with some other what is the startup that I wrote about in my aqui en aqui en had a battery that they you know, they did well for a while, and then they couldn’t scale it up and they went bankrupt in their assets were acquired J. J. Whitaker at Carnegie Mellon was involved in that project. But so your do the metals, then expand, they expand and contract within the tank, but you don’t have you don’t have a problem in terms of the the expansion and contraction of the the case itself? Because that was I know that’s that is that’s that’s a problem in the battery battery sector as well. Isn’t it? Right? The form factor and expansion and contraction? No.
Donald Sadoway 11:09
Well, it turns out that the liquids will take the shape of the containers, so there is no pressure. Guys, it’s a liquid metal. But you’re absolutely right, Robert, that the in some of these people who are pursuing solid state, lithium metal batteries are coming up against exactly that phenomenon that as the as the lithium metal disappears, the thickness of the battery changes. And then when you go to charge the battery, it starts to bloat. And in some instances, they have to put back pressure or they have to put it into the jaws of a vise or something like that. But liquid metal No, the metal takes the shape of the case.
Robert Bryce 11:55
So you think you could you could deploy now you’ve been at this a dozen years. And I want to talk about why. And you mentioned and touched on why it takes so long, but you think you could have a commercial operation and start selling these within a year or so that’s your goal. Yeah. And but it’s taken you a dozen years, Weiss, if you had to find the money, you had to get the lab you had to prove you could scale it and then now you have to prove you can manufacture it. And all of those have been, I guess what is the technology valley of death? This is where companies not just years, but a lot of different other ones have have failed? So you’re you think you’re close? Is that right?
Donald Sadoway 12:31
That’s right. And how do we know we’re close? Because we’ve we’ve checked all the boxes. But the answer your question, but why does it take so long? It’s that. So at MIT, we had idealized systems, something inside an external furnace, that would take us to temperature, we had cells that had external ceramic components and electrodes going through feed throughs. And everything was idealized, and we demonstrated the electrochemistry. But when you get into manufacturing, burden, me, you’ve got to be able to, to make this thing on an assembly line. And do so with you know, six sigma, reliability, and all this kind of stuff. And that’s all mechanical engineering. I’m not a mechanical engineer. And no guidance provided from the industry because you can take the smartest people in the world who have driven the price of lithium ion batteries from $2,000 a kilowatt hour down to $100 a kilowatt hour. And most of what they know is not transferable because this technology is so different. So we had no shoulders to stand on. And simple things like you know, we’re operating at, say 500 degrees centigrade. So we have to have a seal on this on this battery, because the the top layer, let’s say the magnesium has to be separated from a feed through from the bottom layer. And so this got to be some kind of a ceramic, but but the can is metal, so you got to have a ceramic metal bond that has to under undergo and sustain temperature excursions, and you’ve got magnesium and their liquid magnesium. So a little bit of magnesium vapor, which is very aggressive. I mean, that’s you want to you want to reduce, you want to make titanium you exposed to Teamcenter chloride to magnesium. So it’ll attack all kinds of things. And I have something that’s scalable and cheap. I mean, I could build you this Ambree battery 10 years ago to a NASA price point.
Robert Bryce 14:41
But so what is it let me let me interrupt you then what is that price point because $100 a kilowatt hour we hear that over as being the the threshold number. And of course, you’re only looking at that the stationary battery market, you’re not going to put one of these in a car, but what do you what’s your target price point on it on a one hour basis?
Donald Sadoway 14:58
Well, we got to be below 100 We want to be, obviously is, we want to get down to below 100. I don’t want to reveal confidential financials. But let’s just say you’re absolutely correct that that 100 is sort of a golden. But when I say 100, I’m talking 100 at scale, that includes not just the cells, but it also includes the battery management system, the power electronics, everything. This is one of the deceptions that you get from the lithium ion people, they will tell you, and if you even read Bloomberg, New Energy Finance, they will show you graphs that show lithium ion coming from $2,000 a kilowatt hour down to their breaking down to below 151 25. Some people are saying 100, those are for the cells, that’s for the individual cell, it’s it’s the 186 fives, oh, it’s about double the size of a double A battery. But that’s not what the you know, that’s not the pack priced. Right. But anyway, so those are
Robert Bryce 16:06
doesn’t include the battery management system, all the other electronics that you have to have in that. So let me ask you another question. So what is your energy density? I mean, what can you reveal that in terms of watts per kilogram? Watt hours per kilogram? I didn’t catch the beginning of that the energy density of the battery the energy density, yeah. In what hours per kilogram? Yeah, that’s how you’re measuring it. Correct. The gravity, power density.
Donald Sadoway 16:30
Yeah, so energy density, it’s, I can give you a number. But if it’s a stationary battery, who cares? It’s not moving. But that’s what people people ask me. Yeah, the last week. So if I want to look at, say the the current technology that we’re working with, I gave you the example of magnesium and antimony, we’ve pivoted a number of times to keep driving our costs down. So the current battery that we’re running with has calcium as one electrode, and antimony is the other electrode, calcium chloride is the electrolyte. And calcium chloride. I know some of your your viewers live in parts of the country where they have to deal with snow and ice. But up here, we’re gonna have a whopper of a nor’easter day after tomorrow. And we throw salt on the roads. And guess what, salt calcium chloride that’s how cheap calcium chloride is. So with, with with the those kinds of chemistries, the energy density in watt hours per kilogram, and I’m talking everything this is this is a big device that has a plurality of cells, with the power electronics and everything, it’s about 67 Watt hours per kilogram, which is about half of what a lithium ion of a single cell is, right. And, you know, if even you look at an automobile, though, they’ll have maybe 1000 of the 1865. O’s, right, and put them together and pack and battery management, on and on and on, and then the casing, etc, etc. That’s, that’s not 125 Watt hours a kilogram, by the time we put all that stuff together, right? But, you know, it’s not about I’ll tell you the only metric that really counts, it’s dollars per kilowatt hour capital cost, dollars per kilowatt hour per cycle, because everybody who’s ever had a phone knows, if you use a lithium ion battery, it fades. Right? From day one, you go for 12 hours, you’re so happy. And on day 601, you’re throwing the thing against the wall, because you can’t get through half a day. Just you can’t, but who cares, you’re going to get a new phone every two years. But if you try to do that to a battery, that’s going to cost you hundreds of 1000s of dollars to give you say, some megawatt hour packs that are going to store energy from solar or wind, you’re not going to replace those things every two years. So that’s where you know the whole question about what’s your energy density watt hours per kilogram, I said, it’s not moving. In fact, I use that as an attribute. I’ve got my own security in there, no one can no one can steal this thing.
Robert Bryce 19:34
Unless they come with a big big forklift and a an attractor trailer. Well, so just so a fair point and I understand is the energy density is not as nearly as important or not irrelevant, but not as important in stationary batteries. But 6770 kilowatt hours per kilogram compared to working on the top my head lead acid lead acid is what 10 Watt hours
Donald Sadoway 19:57
3530 to 35 watts. As a kilogram
Robert Bryce 20:00
Okay, got it so you’re roughly twice twice as energy dense as lead acid. Well, let me since we’re talking about lead acid i Last year I spoke to East Penn there man if massive DECA batteries a massive manufacturer of lead acid, is lead acid gonna stick around? I mean, it’s your seems like it’s got a lot of inertia behind it. What’s your what’s your view on the lead acid market just since we’re talking about it?
Donald Sadoway 20:22
Well let acid it’s it’s one of the oldest ones that works. It’s not flammable, operates at room temperature operates, you know, cold, very low capital cost, it’s excellent for short bursts like starter motor, you look at the rating on a lead acid battery like 450 cold cranking amps, that means that little box there will put out 400 amps at 12 volts for something like 30 seconds, that’s a real power burst. Yeah, that’s the good news. The bad news is that lead acid does not deep cycle, if you discharge a lead acid battery, down to 100% depth of discharge, and then you try to recharge it, you’ve done a lot of damage in terms of service lifetime. In fact, you know, lead acid batteries are used on US nuclear submarines. And they will not allow lithium ion batteries on a submarine because the things are unreliable, they’re unstable, they’ll catch fire. But lead acid batteries are used to balance the the nuclear reactor because the reactor it operates over a narrow range. But I don’t know if the people watching understand that the way the grid operates, supply has to equal demand everywhere at all times. So when when the demand goes down, and people go to sleep and turn off their their lights and their ovens and whatnot, then the generators, they they trim back the generation because if the supply exceeds the demand, the electricity goes into the wires. The next thing you know, you plug something in, and the voltage is wrong and the frequency is wrong, you blow up your devices. So if you’re in a nuclear submarine and you’re you’re you’re moving, you got to draw maximum power, but when you’re idling, you got to trim back the power, you can’t trim it back enough, otherwise, the reaction will go dead. So what do you do, you trim it back as much as you can, and you’re still producing too much power. And you slough that power off into into batteries. That’s how you balance the grid. That’s that’s the nuclear sub is essentially a micro grid. Yeah, it’s an electric boat. And the the source is the nuclear reactor, right, but let acid don’t like deep discharge. And so after about two years, they’re not doing their job and the boat has to come in. And they have to, to to swap them out. Now how do you think you swap lead acid batteries out of a submarine? I mean, when you’re building the sub you start with an empty shell you put it
Robert Bryce 23:14
in a battery has no idea that subs had lead acid I mean, I’m you know, after seeing I’ve been in the lead acid manufacturer been in two different plants, it is just a market. Remarkable. You talking about manufacturing at scale. I mean, it’s just one of the it’s the in East Lyon, Pa the went through their facilities, the biggest lead acid single single site, Lead Acid manufacturing plant in the world. And it’s quite impressive, the just the recycling and so on. But that’s interesting about the nuclear subs. I didn’t know about that. Hey, so let me let me switch gears a little bit here. Because, you know, we’ve talked several times. And I think what you do is, you know, it’s fascinating. And the, and I’m your chemist, I’m not I might my wife’s father is Paul Rasmussen I have great respect for he’s a chemistry professor emeritus at University of Michigan. So been around him enough to you know, we talk about the periodic table, when you look at the periodic table, what do you see?
Donald Sadoway 24:09
I see the palette, I mean, everything that we have, is going to be made out of some combination of what’s on the periodic table. So that’s, that’s my, that’s my point of departure.
Robert Bryce 24:21
And we say palette I like that I like that word. So that the whatever we’re going to make has to come from there. And so you know, I’ve written a lot about rare earth elements. In fact, I’ve we got reacquainted after I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal in December, and you wrote a letter and talking about the issue of sourcing of the lanthanides. Is there is there a row we talked about this as well about what did you call them computer assays of different metals that you were as you were looking at batteries, you were talking about looking at their properties and doing your testing with computers instead of doing them on the on the lab bench? Explain. Am I remembering that correctly? Can you explain that?
Donald Sadoway 25:00
Yeah, so people have been working feverishly to try to shorten the time it takes to invent and prove out new battery chemistry. So they’ve tried to take as much of the knowledge that we have of the properties of elements and digitize them, and then see, actually going all the way down to electronic structure, which is what governs chemical reactivity. And there are some elaborate programs now that will, you know, you can say, alright, let’s, let’s take, let’s take aluminum, and every compound that it forms, and you can compute what would happen to the aluminum chloride, aluminum bromide or aluminum oxide on and on and on. And then and then compare that with with some other metal, and look at pairwise what what will give us voltage, if it gives us voltage, and ultimately, we can draw current, and so on. So so that’s the sort of copy of that we call that computational material science where we’re trying to use the computer to, to, to screen for the most promising candidates. And because otherwise, we’re basically going into the laboratory. And, you know, that people have enormous respect for, for Thomas Edison. And there’s this term of art, it’s Addisonian approach, but at some level, it’s just cooking look, I mean, just keep pulling different bottles off the shelf and seeing I mean, that’s how he came up with the, with the filament for the incandescent light bulb, that when there was no no chemistry behind it, it was just keep trying and trying and trying until something, something works. Well, if that’s the way that we’re going to progressed for new battery chemistries, then you can expect that the, the slow rate of progress is going to continue to be a slow rate of progress. So the computational thing is, is definitely an edge. And now I was
Robert Bryce 27:06
and was that how you came up with the the liquid metal battery was that duty, no computational work. So tell me what the what was the aha moment then on your your design with? Well, you switched out? You were with liquid man, magnesium and antimony. And now you’re with calcium chloride was there? Was there one moment where you said, Oh, hey, magnesium, I love me some magnesium and this is the way forward?
Donald Sadoway 27:31
Well, this is a it’s a really funny story. Because, you know, and MIT was also as of professor I was involved in teaching and, and I eventually, starting in the early 90s, took over a large general chemistry class, everybody at MIT has to take chemistry as part of their requirements for the bachelor’s degree. Even if you’re majoring in political science, you still have chemistry, physics, mathematics, and so on. So I really loved this class. And because I was teaching this to largely two first year students, and had to explain all these concepts in it, in a way, it clarified things in my own mind. And so I’m going back to your earlier question, you know, I look at the periodic table, that’s my palette, and I just look at and say, if I want to make a good battery, I want to put a really good metal, which is a good electron donor with a poor metal, which is a good electron acceptor. And I know where they where they lie on the periodic table, and I start mixing and matching, but this one has too high melting point, but this one has decided some other properties that wouldn’t make it suitable. And very quickly, sort of narrow it down. And, and that was sort of the genesis of, of the liquid metal battery, it was just, I didn’t use any advanced, you know, density functional theory or any of this mathematical, Advanced Physical Chemistry, I just use my mind and sat in front of the periodic table looked at it. And then the second thing I did was I took the periodic table, which is organized by columns and rows according to the electronic structure. And then in my mind, I’m overlaying that with relative Earth abundance. So I can I can make a dynamic dynamite battery with two lorianne. But Tillery was about as Earth abundant as gold. So there’s a big swath of the periodic table, I tell the people in my research group, I forbid you to go there, because I don’t care what you make, it won’t scale, right? So if you take the periodic table and throw away everything that is rare, and just have a small subset of the things that are Earth abundant, and then preferably, not mal distributed like cobalt Like, the high fraction of cobalt is coming out of Congo, you’d like to have a metal that, that if you have to use it that you can get some in the Americas, you get some of it in Asia, some elsewhere.
Robert Bryce 30:14
So you want good geographic. So you want the right properties in terms of the electron distribution melting point, but it also has to be available and scalable. And that’s, I think that that I like what you’re saying there. And, and so it was really a mental shift that you did more than anything else. Yeah. Right. Cool. That’s great. So let’s talk about that. Because this idea of distribution is one that is really important now, particularly regarding China. And that was the focus of your your letter to The Wall Street Journal and a lot of the focus of the work that I’ve been doing on the rare earth elements. One of the things that we talked about when you were in Abu Dhabi on the phone was neodymium. And I’ve been tracking the price both of neodymium now and lithium and both of them are skyrocketing. I think memory serves I think neodymium is up 6x In the last 15 months, lithium something on the order that same order of magnitude 3456 fold price increase. But let’s talk about coercivity because that was the this is the property that neodymium iron boron magnets have right that they have greater coercivity what is coercivity and why is lithium so good? I’m sorry, why is neodymium so good at it?
Donald Sadoway 31:25
Well, it all comes back to the electronic structure. I mean, when when when I was a youngster the magnets were made out of iron oxide they were ferrite very core and you know we were we were kids we had headphones they were these these big things that went over the air you had to plug them into the power amplifier you the idea of a Walkman headphones is inconceivable. And then we went to after that there was aluminum, nickel, cobalt and nickel and then came samarium cobalt samarium cobalt was much much higher magnetic intensity of course, severity is one one measure of the intensity of the magnetic field and so, people are looking at samarium cobalt and samarium is a is a rare earth metal and they can substituting it was just basically cooking look and then they put neodymium and neodymium, cobalt but Cobalts expensive. And it was also under under it was used as a as a specialty alloying element in high performance high, high temperature alloys, even in jet engines, turbans, and so on. And there was political conflict in Congo. So people were trying to invent, invent out the COBOL. So, people move from samarium to neodymium. And they said, well, cobalt, well, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s right next to iron, iron, cobalt and nickel are side by side. So they tried neodymium plus iron, and they got decent properties. But the, as they as they started to cycle to magnetizing, the magnetize the these things called magnetic domains, they’re about the size of grains. And you don’t want to have that the size I’m sorry, of what they’re like grains in a metal. Okay, and and so what happens is that you want to magnetize in a way that that the grain structure is maintained. But what they found was with neodymium and iron over time, the thing just court determines corseting, all of the small ones disappeared in the A these big large wins and the the magnetic power fell. And this happened to General Motors. And there was a staff meeting and people were complaining about the coarsening problem and so on. And there was a guy in the staff meeting who was a metallurgist, and he was working in GM and they were doing aluminum casting for engine parts. You know anything about magnetics he says, you know, aluminum, we also have a problem with coarsening we want the grain structure to remain fine because otherwise it’s easier to fracture. And so it is we add a dollop of boron to the aluminum and it gives it they call it a green refiner. And these guys are all physicists. They don’t know anything metallurgy. Metallurgy is annoying magnetics. But they said, Okay, well let’s give it a try. So they put a dollop of boron into the neodymium iron, and it was miraculous, and that was the birth of the neodymium iron boron magnet. It happened a GM in the late 70s, early 80s.
Robert Bryce 35:00
And now and now this is the critical ingredient in nearly all of the electric vehicles made in the world.
Donald Sadoway 35:06
Absolutely. Because it’s, it’s the, it’s the formulation that gives you the highest magnetic and tensity in the smoke because it’s both a weight issue and a volume issue on a car.
Robert Bryce 35:17
Well, so let’s talk about that, because it’s the one that to me, and, you know, I’ve written about this, but it just, it’s I think about the strategic issues here, you know, the chemistry and the metallurgy is one thing, but to have one source effectively for all the rare earth elements, but particularly neodymium, praseodymium, and all of the lanthanides having to source them from China, and China now saying that they are going to in fact, they’re consolidating their different companies in China that are that produce rare earths into one national champion. At the very same time, the US and all these other manufacturer, a US manufacturers, automakers are saying we’re gonna put all of our chips on this one, technology, I just can’t help but think this is a massive, massive mistake. How do you see it done because I just, instead of if we just take it just on what’s produced where we produce a lot of our own oil, we can refine it here we run it internal combustion engines, all of which are at scale, we got it. And now we’re going to trade it all for a single source supplier, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. How do you see it?
Donald Sadoway 36:23
So obviously, if you want to have a electric vehicle, you’re going to have a an electric motor, and the electric motor to be highly efficient needs is a really good magnet. And so there’s two ways out of this. One is to fix the supply chain, or the other is to invent beyond. And so I would I would pursue both paths. So how to fix the supply chain. So there is no damn me the rare earths are not that rare, or they were called rare earths when they were first discovered, and were up in Sweden, probably in the 1700s. But by today’s standards, they’re they’re not that rare. They’re far more prevalent than, say platinum group metals, for example. So we have we have neodymium in, in California at Mountain Pass just across the border from Nevada. Sure. So so we could we could start to supply neodymium based on American Native resources. And who’s to say that there isn’t some neodymium sa up and up in Canada or maybe somewhere down in South America, if we’re willing to look for it. Now, the other thing I would do is to also, you know, make sure that there’s a radical innovation being funded in research where, who’s to say that neodymium is the last stop, who’s to say that there isn’t some other material that can give us remarkable magnetic properties. That that the mechanism is different from the mechanism that we’re accustomed to, I mean, the mechanism that that operates in the lithium ion battery that John good enough discovered with the lithium cobalt oxide was totally different from the mechanism that operates in the lead acid battery. So if we’d stuck to lead acid and trying to substitute the lead dioxide that’s in the, that’s opposite the lead electrode and lead acid, we wouldn’t have come to it. But John good enough was doing this other research and realize that cobalt oxide would intercalate lithium, and it gave birth to this radical innovation, high voltage and so on. So the two things either invent beyond or develop domestic supply. And you say, Well, why don’t the developing domestic supply? Well, you know, it should not come as a shock to the viewers that mining is a dirty business. It’s, you know, it’s, you know, it’s not like picking flowers. Okay. And so, it’s, so you have to go through a lot of effort to get permitted, and to make sure that your your processes have to be audited to make sure that you don’t have toxic waste being spewed out. And, you know, today the industry is as has improved dramatically from from years ago. I mean, I’m sure that some people know that there were these gold gold mining operations where they basically had these piles of ore and leached it with cyanide and pulled out the gold and, and the runoff and so on. So we can’t do that today. So and of all states for it to be the good news is it’s in the United States. The bad news is that it’s in California, and California has very, very strict regulations. I’m not, I’m not condemning California. I’m simply saying that this is one of the reasons why people aren’t just, you know, leading the charge to all of a sudden develop domestic supply of neodymium. Now, maybe we can get some kind of a mediation in here and say, Look, we let’s see how we can modify the process. And you know, and that’s, again, my work I work on, not only batteries, but I work on electro metallurgy and new, new environmentally sound ways to extract metals. I saw the process when Molly court was was going to do the, the processing of neodymium out of mountain pass, and I looked at and I looked like an eye chart, there were so many unit operations. And I looked at and thought, you got effluence all over the place, this is going to be tough. And sure enough, they eventually abandon the project, because there’s going to be too costly. Can you imagine if you have a process in which the cost of treating the effluence outpaces the profitability of the product? All you’re doing is converting dirt to metal and paying for the effluent? I mean, that’s not going to be profitable. Well, so So let’s the remedy, you invent a new process, come and talk to SAT away, and you’ll have the answer.
Robert Bryce 41:21
Well, let me just back up on the processing thing, because that’s one of the best analyses I’d seen on that part of it was, I think it was a BBC reporter, something you said about China and the rare earth element processing was that China’s willing to take the environmental hit, and that was his phrase, the environmental hit. And the history of the mountain pass mine, if memory serves, it was owned by Chevron, it was bought by Mali Corp, Mali Corp went public there was elicited in mid 2015 2014 15, something around that time, they they made a go of it, they went public, they raised a lot of money, and then they went bankrupt. And now that mine is owned by somebody else. I don’t remember the name of the company right now. But where are they shipping there or to China, or it’s or to Malaysia, but they’re not doing it here in the US. So. So that leads me to this other point, which you came close to discussing. But is it possible to do ESG is the rage now and just we just released an episode with Joe craft is the CEO of Alliance resource partners, which is second largest coal producer in the Eastern US. He’s had half of his bankers have backed out won’t won’t lend him on a revolving credit line now, because of ESG. Here’s the question. Is it possible it given the the metal requirements of some of these so called green technologies, that they can be ESG certified? Is it possible to have ESG compliant rare earth element production? Or is this a contradiction in terms? As you said, mining is a dirty business. Is this Is it possible?
Donald Sadoway 42:49
I think it is. I mean, I’m also the founder of a company called Boston metal. And it’s it involves a new process that converts iron ore into steel with zero greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s how does, how does that work? It’s electrochemical, I start, I don’t use a blast furnace, I don’t have carbon. I don’t have center plants. I don’t have coke ovens, none of that stuff. I take iron ore and I dissolve it into a molten oxide solvent, you’d set 800 degrees Fahrenheit for the liquid metal battery, that’s bathwater for me. We’re operating above the melting point of aluminum, forgive me a melting point point of iron, we’re up at around 16 150 degrees centigrade, that’s probably 3000 Fahrenheit. And, and in one step by the action of electric current, we’ve got a pair of electrodes in there. And it’s it’s sort of the closest thing that is commercially out there wouldn’t be the way we make aluminum. Aluminum is also made by high temperature electrolysis is about 960 degrees centigrade. And we feed in aluminum oxide. And by the actual electric current, we produce liquid aluminum which pools in the bottom and at the top, we produce oxygen, which then reacts with a carbon anode and it makes co2. But in my process, I looked at aluminum, I said, I want a process that makes liquid iron in one step, but makes oxygen as the byproduct. And so we invented an inert anode, it’s a it’s an iron chromium alloy. And it’s immersed in this molten oxide. It’s probably like a molten silicate. So it’s it’s almost like a volcano in there. And we pass current and we make oxygen which is marketable, you make a ton of iron, you make two thirds of a ton of oxygen. So instead of instead of making buy products that are a liability, all the byproducts or products there was
Robert Bryce 45:08
that you could sell in the commercial market. So well, let me ask you, let me ask you about Boston metal and then and go back to Ambree. So you this is a startup? How much money have you raised for Ambree? So far?
Donald Sadoway 45:19
It’s it’s got to be around 100. And I don’t know, it’s probably say around 120 million over over the 10 years. Yeah. Wow.
Robert Bryce 45:32
And you’re, and you’re still, I mean, you’ve got patient investors, Bill Gates is one of your investors. I saw I read about that. That’s correct. And he’s got it. Well, he has, he can be patient because he has a lot of money. But, but that’s one of the other key problems in getting these kinds of technologies to market is patient money to work through all of this, this stuff? And so you’re 120 million? And are you going to raise more money now? And then in the near term, then for Ambry? Is that what’s what’s what’s next in that regard?
Donald Sadoway 46:02
Yeah, so they’ll have to be one more, one more raised before we release the product, to customer hands. And then at that point, we don’t need to raise money, because then we’ll have a revenue stream until you have a revenue stream, you have to keep raising money. And that either means taking, and people are not likely to give you a loan. So you’re basically going to have to raise money and sell equity in return. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 46:29
So what’s your equity stake? If you don’t mind? Since we’re drilling down on this? How much do you still control the company?
Donald Sadoway 46:35
Oh, no, no. When you get into stuff like this, the professor is it’s you get diluted, diluted with the with each fundraise, you get diluted, diluted, diluted, but, you know, I’m not, I’m not doing this, because I’m, I’m greedy, I’m doing this because I have a higher sense of purpose. And I want to, I want to get a battery out there that can stabilize the intermittent sources of electric power, the wind and solar. And I’m just looking forward to seeing the day when this thing gets installed, and, and stabilizes. You know, the, the energy transition is going to stall if we don’t come up with effective stationary storage. And I’d like to be part of that.
Robert Bryce 47:21
Well, so let me ask about that. Because I think that’s an interesting point. Because in talking with some people in the electric power industry, they’re inclined to say, Well, if we really had a good battery, that’d be great for the nuclear plants and the coal plants. Forget about the solar and wind, guys, if we can just resolve the the this this sine wave of demand and declining demand, we’re going to do great. So is it’s not just about the renewable sector. This is for the whole power sector, isn’t it?
Donald Sadoway 47:48
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Robert did the the other. The other thing that’s come out of this that that I didn’t realize when I started on this, because the deeper you get into it, you discover more and more is that some of the early placements of say the liquid metal battery are not going to be with the generator, it’s going to be at the at the load center. So for example, some of our early customers are likely to be server farms, because they consume huge amounts of electricity, right, and they want to do peak shaving, because, you know, people people don’t realize the way that electricity is priced, you know, industrial power. You know, it’s not like toilet paper is by one roll. It’s it’s x. And if you buy 10 rolls, it’s not 10x, it’s less than 10x, you get there’s some volume benefit, right? Electricity, it’s the opposite. If the generators expecting you to be running at x, and at some point, you go up to 2x, they’re going to find you because you’ve stressed the entire system. They weren’t prepared for all of this. So. So what do you do? Do you say, well, we’re going to send workers home? Or do you say we’re going to pay the fine. Or if you have a battery, then you drop the extra current out of the battery and you avoid the penalty. That’s called Peak shaving. Right? And, and so at the server farms, they want to be green. So they’re going to go to solar, what’s happens after dark. So the battery has great utility in many places. And as we said earlier, the the whole business of the grid operates such that supply equals demand. If supply exceeds demand, you have to dump that supply quickly. You go to negative pricing, you call people up and say turn on all your machinery, we’ll pay you to drink electricity, because the electricity is getting a spec. Well, if I had a battery, I’d be able to dump the electricity into the battery and balance the grid. So with all these different values for electricity, I like to say that electricity would do for the grid, what refrigeration did the To the onset of refrigeration to our food supply.
Robert Bryce 50:04
So we didn’t ever hear so if I think maybe you misspoke, you said the battery will do for the grid. You said electricity, but the battery will do for the grid. What? What, what refrigeration did for food? Is that did I hear you? Right? Yeah. Okay. I like that idea that battery will do for the grid, what refrigeration did for food, because now we have the cold chain from the farm to the, you know, to almost Well, my table, right?
Donald Sadoway 50:29
Well, our diets would look quite different if we didn’t have refrigeration.
Robert Bryce 50:34
So do you have a favorite element?
Donald Sadoway 50:38
I did favorite elements for different reasons. But there’s an element that I kind of like it’s iridium. And it’s a platinum group metal. It’s it’s brilliant white. I mean, if you think of silver, that’s just bright and a white gold is bright. Iridium is beautiful. As high melting, very high melting. Very noble, high melting.
Unknown Speaker 51:02
Donald Sadoway 51:04
Come on, ask me for a favor now. Okay, well, alright, so well. Okay. Well, wait, am I gonna get my periodic table? I’ll find one here for the principal’s office. Awesome. I’ll give you other principles.
Robert Bryce 51:17
I actually need to ask my father in law. Paul Rasmussen is as I told you, as a chemist about his favorite element. I haven’t put that to him. But well done. We’ve been talking a long time. Again, my guest is Donald Salloway. He’s an emeritus professor of materials chemistry at MIT. And he’s a co founder of Ambree, which is a battery company that is on the verge of commercial operation. You said you’re, you’re you’re you’re likely when I talked to Jay Whitaker and I’ve profiled him in my fifth book smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper. Their first target markets were Island economies because they thought they were gonna use solar batteries and a diesel gensets I heard you say your target markets to start out the gate are likely server farms any other what other sectors are your likely first customers?
Donald Sadoway 52:02
Oh, no question Island. Economies are very attractive. We’ve we’ve had conversations with people in Hawaii, for example, where you know, you’ve got wind, you had solar, but they don’t have storage. And they have to import everything for their electricity. They’re burning diesel. Same in the Caribbean. They’re they’re many places where you have the high temperatures, you know, because people are right now out of desperation, they’re installing these megawatt hour facilities with lithium ion batteries. And those things are, you know, they’re ticking time bombs, because they have to be kept cooled, if the if the temperature gets up above about 60 degrees centigrade, the chances of a fire are enhanced. And once that fire starts, you can’t put it out just you know, spray water on the adjacent buildings and let the thing burn itself out. So so if you go to high temperatures, you know, people in Australia, or places where the temperature gets a you know, over, you know, look at look at what happened in Arizona, they have some lithium ion storage facilities and they’ve had some fires there and even some injuries with firefighters. So there’s plenty of opportunity. You don’t have to go to the Caribbean islands
Robert Bryce 53:34
if you want to miss that because that was that the viscera battery complex right at Moss Landing in California, right. I don’t even know they turn that back on it caught fire and then they kept that firefighters on station for what two weeks or something to in case it caught fire again, as far as I know, fires a bad outcome. Well, as you made clear, some bad outcome your battery farm that’s not what you want.
Donald Sadoway 53:53
Yeah, well, the thing about the lithium ion battery is that it has all the ingredients inside so it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing you can do. If you pour water on it doesn’t help you smother it with the carbon dioxide doesn’t put it up because the the the electrolyte, the liquid electrolyte is flammable. And there’s carbon in the in the negative electrode that’s flammable. And then in the positive electrode is cobalt oxide or manganese oxide, nickel oxide, the temperature gets up to 300 degrees centigrade, they start to decompose and they liberated oxygen. So you’ve got oxygen and the fuel inside the case. So that I would call that a bomb.
Robert Bryce 54:38
Well, it’s funny that the first thing that comes to mind when you say that is I’ve been watching and I have for years, the number of Tesla automobiles that have caught fire and people burned alive. I mean, there was a case in Houston just a few months ago where, inexplicably no I guess it crashed and then it caught fire and the two guys inside were burned and I just thought, Man, this is a bad outcome. I mean, gasoline is flammable. But I guess is that is I’ve said this before. So is the higher? Is it a rule of thumb that the higher the energy density, the higher the reactivity? Or the higher the reactivity is maybe not the right word, but that No, that’s right. Is that right? is, the higher the higher the energy density, the higher the reactivity?
Donald Sadoway 55:19
Yeah, but that’s correct. But there’s also the whole question of ignition, okay, because, because gasoline I mean, a lithium ion battery, let’s say round numbers, just say 150 Watt hours per kilogram, and gasoline would be 13,000 Watt hours per kilogram, right? So it’s just a question of, you know, what’s it take to, to cause a car that’s in a in a, in a crash, maybe just smashes into a tree or something? What are the chances that thing’s going to catch fire, whereas with lithium ion, if you do anything that causes deformation of the pack, then that could lead to shorting of some of the cells. Once one of the cells shorts and catches fire, it spreads right through. So so the whole concept of risk and propensity to burn, it’s the you’re right, Robert, that the higher the energy density, that is, maybe that means that the fire will burn hotter or something, but it’s the whole there’s a whole sequence of events that has to occur before the thing actually bursts into flame.
Robert Bryce 56:27
So where are we just are we collectively we have people we hear, I guess, asking for trouble with all these EVs that are built with lithium ion batteries.
Donald Sadoway 56:36
Yeah, I’d say so that’s why I’m working on alternative to lithium ion.
Robert Bryce 56:41
For the automotive sector. You’re you are okay. Well, we haven’t talked about that. So there’s another project besides Ambree. Besides Boston metal, that would be high energy density for those for the transportation market. Yeah, it’s
Donald Sadoway 56:53
got to be higher. It’s got to be, let’s say, comparable as long as it’s comparable to lithium ion, and cheaper and safer. And no supply chain issues. ethically sourced, recyclable. You want all those, come and see, come and see me
Robert Bryce 57:12
Okay, well, so is there. Are you gonna give me any hints here about what the chemistry is? Or is this an all under wraps?
Donald Sadoway 57:18
No, it’s not lithium.
Robert Bryce 57:22
So that only right so what’s 110 Other? Periodic?
Donald Sadoway 57:28
I’ll tell you what it is. Okay, go so so it’s going to be aluminum to put aluminum metal on one side. And I’m going to tell you the electrode electrolyte I’ve worked with is it’s a low melting molten salt that’s not not flammable. And on the positive electrode side, we use sulfur.
Robert Bryce 57:50
So again, the flammable and aluminum sulfur battery, aluminum silver. Okay, well, keep me keep me posted on this one. I’m very good. So and you’re going to have energy density 150 Watt hours or so per kilogram. So you can play in the in the electric car market, and it won’t burn me alive if
Donald Sadoway 58:08
it’s gonna take me a few years to get there. But you know, just since everybody in the electric car business is going to say, Oh, we want to see 10 years of data and did it. Okay, just keep raising the bar. I’ll break through.
Robert Bryce 58:24
Good. Last thing we’ve been talking for more than an hour now, Don, so I don’t want to keep you but I always ask my guests. What are you reading? I you know, I know you do a lot of reading technical stuff. What’s what’s on your side of your bed? Or what? What are you reading for pleasure? What What books do you like these days?
Donald Sadoway 58:43
Oh, actually, I actually have not been reading anything. I’ve been focused right now singularly on, on technical issues. And then in my spare time, enjoying art, music literature. And just I haven’t got I buy books faster than I read him. So I’m just to be honest with you.
Robert Bryce 59:08
I’m well familiar. I have a lot of books that I read a little bit of, I’ll recommend the blue age. Gregg Easterbrook was on the podcast a while back his book on the US Navy and the policing of the world’s oceans quite fascinating, great maritime history. And of course, my book. Oh, there you go. You need to read a quote. Yeah,
Donald Sadoway 59:25
that’s, that’s one. There’s this. There’s this really brilliant author robber Bryce. I’ve read everything that he writes,
Robert Bryce 59:33
lie your face. Okay, so last thing done. Again, we’ve been talking for an hour or so. And my guess is Donald sat away. We’ve been talking about batteries. What gives you hope?
Donald Sadoway 59:47
Well, I think I think there’s a imperative to tackle this problem. And when I see the young people that I work with at MIT, they want to join the the effort at climate change mitigation. And they’re not doing something because they just want to get a paycheck. And there are people that want to do something other than write code and go work for Google and Facebook, they really want to change the world for the better. And harness those bright young minds and get them oriented. And I’m confident that there’s there’s plenty to be to be learned and developed. And now we’re seeing that there’s investment coming. And we’re not sitting around waiting for some government agency, we see private sector starting to put their money behind climate change mitigation technologies. And I’m optimistic.
Robert Bryce 1:00:44
Well, that’s a good place to stop then. Donald Salloway Thanks, Amelia. It’s been great fun to have you on the podcast. I’ve been thinking about you and pleased that we reconnected after oh gosh, several years since I was in Boston at your lab and then even further back when we met in Houston way back when? My pleasure. And thanks to all of you in podcast land. Tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast until then, see you
Transcribed by https://otter.ai