Throughout his long career as an electrochemist and professor, Donald Sadoway has received an impressive array of honors, including being named one of them time magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People in 2012 to appear on The Colbert Report, where he spoke about “renewable energy and world peace,” according to Comedy Central.
What are his greatest achievements personally?
“It’s easy,” he says immediately. “For the classroom, it’s 3,091,” the MIT solid-state chemistry course he taught for some 18 years. 3.091 is a core MIT requirement and 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 Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering, estimates he has taught the course to about 10,000 students over the years.
A passion for teaching
Along the way, he turned the course into an MIT favorite, complete with music, art, and literature. “I brought all this enrichment because I knew that 95 percent of the students in this room would not be majoring in anything chemistry and this might be the last course they would take in that subject. But it is a requirement. So they’re 18 years old, they’re very smart, and a lot of them are very bored. You have to find a catch [to reach them]. And I did.”
In 1995, Sadoway was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, an award recognizing outstanding teaching at the institute. Among the messages in support of his nomination:
“His contributions are tremendous and the class is in rapt attention from start to finish. His delivery is very articulate yet lively and he has an unusual grace and style. I was impressed by his ability to bring playful and creative elements into a core lecture…”
Bill Gates would agree. In the early 2000s, Sadoway’s lectures were shared with the world via OpenCourseWare, the web-based publication of MIT course materials. Gates was so inspired by the lectures that he requested a meeting with Sadoway to learn more about his research. (Sadoway initially ignored Gates’ email, thinking his account had been hacked by MIT hoaxes.)
breakthroughs in research
Teaching isn’t Sadoway’s only passion. He is also proud of his achievements in electrochemistry. The discipline, which involves 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 breakthroughs in batteries. First came the liquid metal battery, which could enable large-scale storage of renewable energy. “It’s a big step forward in the green energy transition,” said António Campinos, President of the European Patent Office, earlier this year when Sadoway won the 2022 European Inventor Award for invention in the category for countries outside the European Patent Office.
In The Colbert Report, Sadoway alluded to this work when he told Stephen Colbert that electrochemistry was the key to world peace. Why? Because it could lead to a battery that can store energy from the sun when the sun isn’t shining, making renewable energy a key part of the clean energy mix. And that, in turn, could “drive oil prices down and overthrow dictators around the world without a shot being fired,” he recently recalled.
The liquid metal battery is at the heart of Ambri, one of six companies based on Sadoway’s inventions. Bill Gates was the first backer of the company, which was founded in 2010 and intends to install its first battery soon. This battery will store energy from a claimed 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.
Then, in August of that year, Sadoway and colleagues published an article in Nature about “one of the first new battery chemistries in 30 years,” says Sadoway. “I wanted to invent something better, much better” than the expensive lithium-ion batteries used in today’s electric cars, for example.
This battery is at the heart of Avanti, one of three Sadoway companies formed just last year. The other two are Pure Lithium to commercialize its inventions related to this element and Sadoway Labs. The latter, a non-profit organization, is essentially “a space to try radical innovations. We will start working on wild ideas.”
Another focus of Sadoway’s research: green steel. Steel production produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Enter Boston Metal, another Sadoway venture. This is developing a new approach to steelmaking based on research that began some 25 years ago. Unlike current steelmaking technology, the Boston Metal approach – the electrolysis of molten oxides – does not use the element that causes steel’s problems: carbon. The main by-product of the new system? Oxygen.
In 2012, Sadoway gave a TED talk on the liquid metal battery to 2,000 people. He believes that talk, which has now been viewed by nearly 2.5 million people, led to wider exposure of his work – and science in general – in The Colbert Report and elsewhere. “The moral here is that you might be surprised at what can happen when you step out of your comfort zone,” he concludes.
reflections of 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 these materials,” says Antoine Allanore, professor of metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “He was the same Don Sadoway that you see in his lecture notes: very elegant, very charismatic and passionate about the technical solutions and the underlying science of the process we were all studying: electrolysis. A few years later, when I decided to pursue an academic career, I contacted Don and became a postdoctoral fellow in his lab. That eventually led to me becoming an MIT professor. 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 this is a great place. And I stayed because I saw the extraordinary 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 MIT’s campus in 1994,” recalls Felice Frankel, a research scientist in MIT’s chemical and mechanical engineering departments. “I didn’t have to persuade him of the idea that researchers need to take their images and graphics more seriously. He understood that it’s not just about beautiful pictures. He was an important part of our five-year National Science.” Foundation project—Pictureing to Learn—to bring this concept into the classroom. How lucky for 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 chief executive officer of Avanti Battery Co. As he and I sat down with Bill Gates about the challenges of overcoming of climate change and how batteries could be the linchpin of solving them, I suggested we create our presentation in PowerPoint [Microsoft software]. Don balked. He insisted we showcase using Keynote on his MacBook Air because “it looks so much better.” I was incredulous that he would only want to enter this venue with Apple products. Of course he won the argument, but not without my admonition that there shouldn’t be even a hint of an argument. In the briefing room, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer asked Don if he needed something to hook him up to the screen. “We have all these dongles.” Don declined but gave me that knowing look and whispered, “See, they know it too.” I ate my crow and we had a great long chat with no issues.”
“I remember starting to work with Don on the liquid metal battery project at MIT after choosing it as a topic for my master’s degree in engineering,” adds David Bradwell, Ambri’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “I was a wide-eyed graduate student sitting in his office amidst his art deco decorations, unique furniture, and historical and stylistic infographics, and from our first meeting I could see Don’s passion for always being new and creative to invent practical scientific ideas; and to work on difficult problems in the service of society. Don’s approaches always seem to be unconventional – he wants to stand out from the crowd, tread the less-trodden path, both based on his ideas and sense of style. It’s been an amazing journey working with him over the past decade and a half, and I’m still excited to see what other new, unconventional ideas he can bring to this world.”