Liquid Metal Battery Could Budget Sun's Energy

David Greene talks to materials chemist Donald Sadoway from the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Long Beach, Calif. Sadoway is the co-inventor of the liquid metal battery. It's inexpensive, super efficient, sustainable and can provide large scale energy storage.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now news of what could be a miracle battery. Before you get too excited, it's not a battery that will give you extra juice in your cell phone or your laptop. But it is possible that a system of these new batteries could one day supply electricity to your neighborhood. We're talking about a liquid metal battery. MORNING EDITION's David Greene talked to the inventor, MIT professor Donald Sadoway.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: That's right. we caught up with Professor Sadoway at the Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Long Beach, California, where smart people like Sadoway get together to talk about their ideas.

So, Professor Sadoway, what's this battery look like?

DONALD SADOWAY: The battery's designed for stationary storage. So it's - this is supposed to sit in a room or a small shed. The largest ones that we have right now, they look like giant aspirins. They're about 16 inches in diameter and about four inches tall.

GREENE: Looks like a small box, maybe, that would carry some magazines or books.

SADOWAY: Exactly.

GREENE: Tell us what this battery is supposed to do. I mean, if it's sitting there in a shed, what do you hope it can accomplish?

SADOWAY: Take the electricity that's being generated by the sun during the daytime and save some of that energy - in other words, budget the energy, so that if you took the amount of energy that's being harvested over the daylight hours, and instead distributed that energy over 24 hours, then you'd know how much - while it's being generated - to store, and how much to send to the grid. And then after sunset, you can then call upon the battery to deliver some of that energy that you'd been storing through the day.

GREENE: You can take power from the wind and the sun and kind of use these chemicals in the battery to hang onto it and then deliver it to a grid when the time is right.

SADOWAY: Exactly. We like to say that with this battery, you can draw electricity from the sun, even when the sun doesn't shine.

GREENE: We're using the term grid. I mean, is this something that could power a home, a city?

SADOWAY: Yes. The battery is scalable to different applications. So, for example, we have one variant of the technology where we take the battery and make it about the size of a 40-foot shipping container. And that would have enough capacity to meet the daily electrical needs of about 200 American households.

But there have been conversations about whether we could scale this down to something about the size of a large refrigerator that could sit in the basement of a home. And in an ideal situation, you might have a solar collector on the roof. And, again, you'd take the energy through the daytime and store it and then call upon it in the evening.

GREENE: Interesting. So there might be a day when we're not going to have to be sending our money to the electric - the power company?

SADOWAY: Well, there might be a day where, if you generate more electricity than you need, your home could be an electricity source contributing to the grid, in which case you come home and you discover there's been a deposit to your bank account for the energy that you've sold to your neighbors.

GREENE: I want to ask you, we caught you at the Technology Entertainment and Design conference, and you and other people were talking about different ideas. I understand that when you teach about chemistry or other topics, you often use music. You give it a backbeat.

SADOWAY: That's correct.

GREENE: Is there a song that would be a perfect fit to teach about liquid batteries?

SADOWAY: Maybe something along the lines of "Power to the People."

GREENE: Nice. I like the idea.

Donald Sadoway is a professor of materials chemistry at MIT, and also sounds like he's a DJ. He joined us from the Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Long Beach, California.

Professor, thanks so much.

SADOWAY: My pleasure.

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