Liquid metal battery: Can we invent our way out of climate trouble?

MIT inventor of a liquid metal battery makes guest appearance on The Colbert Show and adds a note of optimism in climate debate. Can liquid metal battery or other battery technology diminish world's reliance on oil?

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/File
A liquid metal battery prototype is under construction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in this 2009 file photo. Since then, MIT Professor Donald Sadoway has formed a company to commercialize the technology and, he hopes, reduce emissions that speed climate change and dependence on oil.

After President Obama and Mitt Romney spent three presidential debates steering clear of climate change, there was plenty of hand-wringing among the pundits. The candidates were letting down the electorate. The nation needs serious discussion about the looming challenge.

But what would happen if the solution to climate change turned out to be, well, sort of fun?

What if an inventor went on, say, The Colbert Report, and told the audience he had a neat solution for America's dependence on fossil fuels?

That happened Monday night when Stephen Colbert invited MIT professor Donald Sadoway onto his show to talk about his new battery that can store wind and solar energy for a fraction of the cost of today's batteries.

If his liquid metal battery can be commercialized successfully, it could be a game-changer by making renewable energy far more – (oh, wait, this is getting far too serious). Let Don and Stephen explain:

Colbert: You say, like, new batteries can lead to world peace. How does the new battery lead to world peace?

Sadoway: If you have batteries everywhere so that  you can bring renewable sources of energy into the grid and use renewable sources of energy to power electric vehicles, then you're going to topple dictators. You're going to make things very,  very different when the price of oil goes back to 20 dollars a barrel.

That drew cheers from the crowd. (You can see the video here.)

Imagine! Cheers about tackling global warming, instead of guilt every time you turn the key in the ignition.

Mr. Colbert didn't let Professor Sadoway get into details. But in a TEDTalk this past March, Sadoway laid out the science behind his invention and explained why it's important:

"If we're going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can't just conserve our way out, we can't just drill our way out, we can't bomb our way out. We're going to do it the old-fashioned American way. We're going to invent our way out, working together."

That also drew cheers from his audience. (You can see the talk here.)

Since building prototypes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sadoway has formed a company, gotten investors, and is preparing to scale up his invention to see if it can work outside a laboratory setting.

Is the liquid metal battery a breakthrough? Who knows? Does this solve global warming? Of course not.

Those difficult conversations that climate scientists are calling for – government-to-citizen and government-to-government – still need to happen if we are to move toward a coordinated solution for climate change.

But those conversations will be so much easier if they're not focused solely on what we have to give up and the extra we have to pay.

Inventors and other creative people have the opportunity to show us the flip side of that equation: What we can gain by moving to a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels.

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