Innovation and the Missing Link to Renewable Energy

Posted by Ben Miller on Nov 26, 2013 9:22:14 AM

Of the many aspects to the current energy situation in the U.S. and elsewhere, technological innovation is just one facet, but an important one. According to one MIT professor and entrepreneur taking the TED stage earlier this year, Donald Sadoway, America should invent its way out of the current situation. Given that certain parts of our energy infrastructure have been given little entrepreneurial attention until recently, it makes sense to apply time and resources to such innovations, even if there are different priorities competing for (and deserving of) attention.

What is Prof. Sadoway’s contribution to the path of invention? In March he presented an invention of his own that has been through several rounds of testing and is now reaching the later stages of development. You can see his presentation below. It’s not as sexy as a Tesla electric car or as hip as a mobile app that you can control your heating with… but I hope our readers will agree that it is just as ingenious as it is crucial to the problem of electricity: a battery. Not just any battery – a huge storage device to capture unused energy from the grid for later use at peak demand, made completely of molten salts. Storage is an important means to overcome the problem of intermittency in renewable energy sources, currently holding back increased reliance on such sources of electricity (in California, this is sometimes referred to as the “duck problem”; a more in-depth study into the problem can be found here).

What has this got to do with InnoCentive’s corner? As you will see from the video, Sadoway took an unusual approach to his technological innovation, which provides some interesting food for thought for traditional innovation approaches, and some lessons that are worth sharing.

First, Sadoway challenges us to start with the problem at hand, and consider its specific requirements before even thinking about the solution. While this sounds simple, he laments the tendency for R&D in his field to start at the other end, seeing what solutions could be out there and trying to retrofit them to the problem:

We need to think about the problem differently … Let’s abandon the paradigm of “let’s search for the coolest chemistry and hopefully we’ll chase down the cost curve by just making lots and lots of product”. Instead let’s invent to the price point of the electricity market.

His specific focus for the battery is the unit cost at scale of the technology being produced. Still, the observation can be extended to a general practice of thinking about the needs of the problem before putting time and effort into developing or sourcing a solution. In this case, as pointed out by this article, the battery is not required to be idiot-proof or able to withstand a crash; but it does need to be very cheap.

Second, Sadoway did not start his search into batteries by looking at batteries. Instead, his attention was held by a process that neither stores nor generates electricity, but rather consumes electricity (and a great deal of it): the smelting of aluminum. He was interested in how this process had come to achieve such an economy of scale, to the extent that we can produce the stuff for less than 50¢ per lb (equivalent to £0.14/€0.17 per kg) – a scale that he sought to capture for his own product. This insight led him to look for materials that were earth-abundant, and eventually led him to his invention of a viable molten salt battery. There was a long way to go before he could prove that it was feasible and robust at scale; but by paying close attention to the specifications of this particular problem he was able to break from the convention that batteries on the electricity grid should be like batteries in cars or phones.

Sadoway 2

From start to finish, Sadoway got help, not from experts in the field, but from students. In the lab, for initial testing, he got a Ph.D. candidate to build the liquid battery for testing.

Do I hire seasoned professionals? No! I hire a student, and mentor him – teach him how to think about the problem, to see it from my perspective… and then turn him loose.

When seed funding was secure and he could expand the team, he stuck to this principle and hired more Ph.D. candidates, post-docs and some undergraduates. Even when he had the money to get the “professionals”, he chose to continue with a relatively inexperienced team. So, the third aspect of the approach that we can learn from is that insight comes not just from people’s expertise but also from other parts of their experience, and indeed from their attitude to work. Experienced minds of course bring value to a problem; but as Sadoway saw, the fresh perspective of someone new to or even outside the field should not be overlooked.

For InnoCentive, bringing new approaches to a problem from people in parallel or even unrelated fields is a central part of our methodology. The oblique angle that could spark a new insight is more accessible to someone who is not immersed in the problem field itself. And from the wider industry standpoint, there is a general preference for labelling Challenges in this space as “energy storage” Challenges rather than “battery” Challenges, to avoid preconceptions that could restrict approaches to the problem.

This is the key to the final lesson that we can draw from Sadoway’s experience, for innovation in general. Conventional wisdom says a few things about batteries that proved not to be true in his work. From a physical point of view, batteries generally run at around room temperature, and sometimes energy-intensive systems are put in place to maintain a low temperature. In his case, the liquid battery works best at high temperatures, and is resilient to the sharp heat increases that come with a power surge. From an economical point of view, conventional wisdom claims that it is best to build smaller batteries, and lots of them… having successfully built the 1kWh “Pizza” and now working on the 4kWh “Bistro Table”, Sadoway has found his battery scales well in terms of size, making it more economical to size up than to scale up production of small units. And finally, Sadoway closes his speech by talking about the human aspect of his endeavour – his approach of hiring students and mentoring them has worked very well so far, with no signs of stopping. Far from his story being just about inventing technologies, Sadoway argues, “It’s a blueprint for inventing inventors”.

We watch this space to see if this battery can be integrated into the grid in large capacity and unleash the next wave of renewables into the system. I for one hope that this innovation goes far, such is the transformative effect it could have on our relationship with electricity. From an innovation perspective, we encourage you to follow in Sadoway’s steps, starting from the problem and its individual specifications, and making use of the “unusual suspects” when developing a product or solution. These are often easier said than done; but success here can have a similarly transformative effect on innovation processes.


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Topics: Innovation Insights

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