Liquid Metal Battery, a company pursuing a breakthrough battery design, has attracted Bill Gates and an oil driller as seed investors, reports CNET. We've contacted the firm for comment.
The inventor of the core technology for the battery is Don Sadoway, MIT Professor of Materials Chemistry, one of the school's most popular professors and sought-after speakers.
Here is what we wrote about Sadoway and his invention back in March:
Sadoway has challenged the research community to invent a colossal yet cheap battery. He directed researchers to look at the economy of scale of modern electrometallurgy and the aluminum smelter, which handles the holy grail of batteries -- achieving a high current while maintaining massive scale.
Why is an aluminum cell not a battery? You have to produce liquid metals at both electrodes.
Making metal at the cathode is trivial, but making metal at the anode is not so trivial. So Sadoway went back to the periodic table and used magnesium to "intimidate" antimony into behaving like a non-metal. From there, using seed money from within MIT, Sadoway and his team invented the liquid metal battery or, more academically, a process called Reversible Ambipolar Electrolysis.
The battery uses molten antimony and molten magnesium separated by an electrolyte. Sadoway claims that the all-liquid configuration is self-assembling and is expected to be scalable at low cost. Furthermore, this technology may have a shot at being cheaper than sodium sulfur (NaS) batteries.
The team has since received $7 million from ARPA-E and $4 million from Total and has spun out a firm called the Liquid Metal Battery Company. And now Bill Gates has added his two cents.
Sadoway's research ranges from metals production and portable energy storage devices to his "liquid battery," which has applications in grid-level storage for renewable energy applications -- to some extent inspired by aluminum smelters.
Sadoway has spoken about how rechargeables have improved as we progressed from lead acid at 35 Wh/kg to Li-ion at 150 Wh/kg (versus gasoline at 12,000 Wh/kg). But Sadoway doesn't think that Li-ion batteries have a future in grid-scale or transportation applications. We need to change chemistries and that takes radical innovation, according to Sadoway, in order to make solar and wind power more dispatchable. In this case, we need to make a battery that can handle high current.
Lithium-ion batteries in phones and cars have to be ultra-safe. Cell phones "need to be idiot-proof, largely because they are in the hands of idiots," and batteries in cars need to be able to withstand a crash. Stationary batteries for bulk storage are not held to those same requirements, which allows more freedom in choice of chemistry but the application requires a very low price point -- and Sadoway insists that you have to think about price point at the beginning of the product design process.
Automotive traction for an all-electric car has a target cost of $100 to $200 per kWh, and stationary storage needs to be in the vicinity of $50 per kWh, according to Sadoway.
Sadoway has weighed in on the woeful state of energy research in the U.S., saying, "We need to accelerate the rate of discovery. We can make batteries two or three times better if we're willing to make the investment." He said that energy research has fallen by a factor of six, while medical research has grown by a factor of four since the 1970s. He said that the U.S. energy industry spends 0.25 percent of revenues on R&D, while the pharmaceuticals industry spends 18 percent and semiconductor firms spend 16 percent. Even the automotive industry spends 3 percent of its revenues on R&D.
Sadoway recommended that researchers "confine their search to earth-abundant elements. The only way to make something dirt cheap is to make it out of dirt -- American dirt."
Though revolutionary technology is a good thing, getting storage on the grid is going to involve leveraging technology, price, and, just as importantly, regulatory issues involving the FERC, and ISOs and PUCs across the nation. Gates might consider focusing on addressing the regulatory and policy situation, as well as placing bets on cool technology. Energy markets and innovation in energy will not work the way IT works -- a lesson many investors from the IT world are bound to discover, sooner or later.