A new battery made from cheap, abundant resources

The aluminum-sulfur battery offers cost-effective, fire-resistant energy storage, challenging lithium-ion dominance in safety and affordability.
Impact Area: Energy and the Environment
The three primary constituents of the battery are aluminum (left), sulfur (center), and rock salt crystals (right). All are domestically available, abundant materials that don’t require a global supply chain. Photo: Rebecca Miller

What it is

An aluminum-sulfur battery that is lightweight, doesn’t burn, and can be made much more cheaply than the lithium-ion batteries currently in use.

Why it matters

When MIT’s Donald Sadoway sits down with colleagues to invent something, as he often does, the bar is set high. It’s not enough, he believes, for a new technology to be novel and interesting. “It has to be better, higher performance, safer, with a secure supply chain and priced lower than the legacy technology,” says Sadoway, the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.
Sadoway and his team of researchers focused on batteries, under the framework that they would be based on abundant natural resources that could be easily found in North America. Created from low-cost and plentiful aluminum, elemental sulfur, and common salt, their new battery is cheap and fire-resistant, can store enough energy to electrify a house or a car, and can charge to full capacity in less than a minute. To get to work commercializing the technology, Sadoway and his former student, Luis Ortiz SB ’96 ScD ’00, formed a company called Avanti, Sadoway’s third startup in as many years. The Avanti battery will provide energy storage for single-family homes and small to medium-sized enterprises. Next, they hope, the battery will be paired with renewable energy sources for continuous, uninterruptible power output when the sun isn’t shining and the wind dies down.

Though the battery contains sulfur, it won’t smell like rotten eggs. The cells are hermetically sealed to prevent generation of the odious hydrogen sulfide gas.

What’s next

Avanti is experimenting with scaling up its aluminum-sulfur battery and exploring potential other uses, including, possibly, in electric vehicles. Sadoway cautions it’s too soon to say whether the invention will be viable as a car battery. But he points out it’s better than the current lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles thanks to its lower cost and better safety profile via use of a nonflammable salt as the electrolyte.
“What interests me is science in service to society. And that means you have to be thinking about what it’s going to take to scale up the technology and make it into a product that is better and cheaper than what we use right now,” says Sadoway. “We don’t need a better battery that costs more.”