The European Patent Office honoured Canadian-American scientist Donald Sadoway with the European Inventor Award 2022 in the "Non-EPO countries" category. The MIT chemistry professor has developed batteries made of liquid metal that can be used to store renewable energy at scale, increasing the reliability of solar and wind power and enabling them to play a bigger role in electricity supply.
"By enabling the large-scale storage of renewable energy, Donald Sadoway's invention is a huge step towards the deployment of carbon-free electricity generation." says António Campinos, President of the European Patent Office. "He has spent his career studying electrochemistry and has transformed this expertise into an invention that represents a major advance in the transition to green energy."
Sadoway was honoured at the European Inventor Award 2022 ceremony, a hybrid event watched online by a worldwide audience. The Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes and is presented annually to outstanding inventors from Europe and beyond who have made an exceptional contribution to society, technological progress and economic growth.
Working at the extreme
Sadoway has spent his career studying what he calls "extreme electrochemistry": chemical reactions in molten salts and liquid metals at over 500° Celsius. The liquid metal batteries he developed consist of three liquid layers of different densities, which naturally separate in the same way as oil and vinegar do in a salad dressing. The top and bottom layers are made from molten metals, with a middle layer of molten liquid salt.
To keep the metals liquid, the batteries need to operate at extremely high temperatures, so Sadoway designed a system that is self-heating and insulated, requiring no external heating or cooling. They have a lifespan of more than 20 years, can maintain 99% of their capacity over 5 000 charging cycles and have no combustible materials, meaning there is no fire risk.
In 2010, with a patent for his invention and support from Bill Gates, Sadoway co-founded an academic spin-off called Ambri to develop a commercial product. In 2015, Ambri built its first room-sized liquid metal battery and the company will soon install a unit on a 3 700-acre development for a data centre in Nevada, US. This battery will store energy from a reported 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.
Sadoway, who has spent his entire career at MIT, is also a passionate educator and developed a celebrated series of introductory chemistry lectures. He has the following advice for inventors: "You can become a great concert pianist by following the work of great masters, but if you want to be a composer, or an inventor, you can only trust yourself."