Don Sadoway

Energy and Environment

Canada native Donald Robert Sadoway has devoted much of his career to developing technology aimed at using energy and resources more efficiently in order to lessen harmful effects to the environment. Holder of a dozen patents, his research on next-generation batteries has resulted in a novel device known as the “SlimCell,” which could be a step toward making electric cars more viable for the masses and might also enable safer, more powerful portable computing machines.

Born in Oshwal, Ontario, on March 7, 1950, Sadoway attended the University of Toronto and completed a BA degree in engineering science in 1972, followed by an MA in chemical metallurgy a year later. In 1977, he was awarded his PhD, also from the University of Toronto, and accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty there in 1978, beginning as an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. In 1982 he became associate professor in the department; ten years later he became full professor and has remained at MIT. Since Sept. 2006, he has held the post of John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry.

For some time, scientists have been working on better alternatives to today’s typical, commonly used batteries which rely on centuries-old science; results of their efforts have included lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells. While these technologies are promising, each comes with challenges related to power limitations, size, and safety, for which researchers continue to work on solutions. Micro-fuel cells, for instance, may have longer run-time than longevity-challenged Li-ion batteries, but most require a reaction of diluted-liquid methanol and a catalyst chemical to generate power. These batteries can be safe and effective if chemicals are kept at small quantities, but would require consumers to carry refills of the liquid methanol — a problem in terms of supply and distribution as well as in complying with airline safety regulations on passenger aircraft.

Sadoway’s focus on solid-state, lithium-ion batteries aims to provide a non-combustible, lightweight, inexpensive and energy-dense alternative to fuel cells. His research was borne out of a desire to improve air quality by reducing carbon emissions from automobiles, as well as helps lessen people’s dependence on petroleum. His first ride in an electric car convinced him that developing a battery that would make these vehicles viable for the masses would be an important breakthrough.

He set out to work on a Li-ion battery that would deliver twice as much power per kilogram as existing Li-ion devices, with the goal of producing one that could power a car for at least 250 miles on a single charge. One of the ways he sought to make the device lighter was to create a solid-polymer electrolyte that would be much lighter than a liquid version. With the help of MIT colleague and fellow materials scientist Anne Mayes, he was able to create a solid, breakthrough material that performs as well as he had hoped it would. Using an ultra-light, thin metal for electrodes and a Plexiglas-style plastic called Perspex to house electrolytes, he developed a battery model dubbed the “SlimCell.” The device can store a massive amount of energy per kilogram, is safe, leak-free, and relatively easy to produce.

The SlimCell is also versatile in that it is foldable and bendable. Sadoway hopes the device may have applications in cars plus a variety of additional areas, including personal computing and medical devices. A killer app would help take it into mass production, according to Sadoway, which he hopes to see within five years.