Name: Donald Robert Sadoway
Present position: John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry, Department of Materials Science Engineering, MIT, Cambridge, MA
Degrees: B.A.Sc., Engineering Science; M.A.Sc., Chemical Metallurgy; Ph.D., Chemical Metallurgy, University of Toronto
Area of research: The use of electrochemistry in the development of environmentally sound technologies for resource recovery and delivery.
Latest advance: My colleagues and I are working with a class of materials that has the potential to revolutionize battery technology. These materials are lithium polymers, which exhibit the mechanical properties of a solid and the electrical properties of a fluid. That seemingly irreconcilable combination is key, because in order to make a battery work you have to move ions around. Solids by definition do not move stuff around.
Impact on design engineers? The implications for product design are huge, because you can start thinking about a battery as a multi-layer laminate— along the lines of a potato chip bag. Today, engineers have to leave a big cavity for the battery in their designs. Imagine the space savings with a battery that can be folded up like a jelly-roll.
Why lithium polymer? In a battery, all you want is electrons, but you can't buy a bucket of them. Since you can only buy a bucket of atoms, you try to get the least amount of baggage per electron. Turns out lithium is the lightest practical conveyor of electrons. Hydrogen is lighter, but its energy density isn't all that great. The next lightest element is helium, but it's chemically inert.
Biggest challenge: Bringing the cost down. The polymers we use aren't expensive, but existing lithium ion batteries use a compound containing cobalt, which is extremely costly, as an active cathode. There is a considerable amount of research being done to find low-cost alternatives.
First battery-operated device owned: A transistor radio with a 9V battery.