Donald Sadoway is the Mr. Chips, the Mr. Holland, the Miss Jean Brodie of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The elfin 65-year-old from Oshawa, Ontario, is the sort of teacher who alums discuss fondly at reunions. Remember the class on the chemistry of Champagne, when he wore a tuxedo and served flutes of bubbly?
Or how he blasted Handel’s Water Music at the start of the class on how hydrogen bonds with oxygen?
Sadoway has won almost every teaching award they have at MIT, some of them multiple times. But he also explodes that nasty old distinction between teachers and doers. He is an inventor with 19 patents, and he’s about to launch a battery that could change the world.
“As we try to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, what’s the big question everyone is trying to answer?” he asks, one of many rhetorical questions he poses in our interview. “It’s this: How do you store the energy generated by turbines when the wind isn’t blowing, the power from solar panels when the sun isn’t shining?”
We meet on the spring day Elon Musk announces Tesla’s plan to release a line of batteries for use by homeowners and utilities. (1) It’s chilly, but he’s wearing khaki shorts.
Looking out from his beach house on the California coast, it’s hard to discern the line between ocean and sky. Neither the day’s gloominess nor Musk’s announcement curbs his enthusiasm. “It’s a big market,” he says. “I’m not the least bit bothered that there are other people out there trying to commercialize batteries.” (2)
From Edison’s day on, every would-be inventor has had a revolutionary, fail-safe battery in mind. (3) But Sadoway has cause to be optimistic about his molten metal battery. For one thing, it’s got Bill Gates backing it.
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