Liquid metal batteries developed by Group Sadoway.

What's inside a liquid metal battery.

The Newshour with Jim Lehrer Sept. 22 explored the work of two MIT professors who are wrestling with fundamental problems in renewable energy – how to make sure energy is available when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow.

“One of the big problems in solar and wind is storage,” says Professor Donald Sadoway, who works in materials chemistry and materials engineering. “You can’t just go to the store and buy a bunch of lead acid batteries and lie them down in a field. You’ve got to have high-density, high-powered storage capability. The battery is the key enabling technology.”

New materials and the ability to scale up to massive megawatt storage are fundamental to the solution. Sadoway and his lab is experimenting with liquid metal batteries with new form factors. Professor Daniel Nocera, who works in energy and chemistry, takes a different approach. He and his lab use a well know method to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas, but add a new catalyst to reduce the energy required in the process. Hydrogen stored with this method could be burned in a large fuel cell that could power a house or a small one to run a car, he says. This method is solves two major problems—storage and transportation— for what Nocera calls the Hydrogen Economy, the large-scale production and use of hydrogen as a fuel.

Professor Angela Belcher.

Professor Angela Belcher.

An article in today’s Boston Globe points to many modest improvements in everyday products that have resulted from nano-science—research at the scale the nanometer, equal to one-billionth of a meter. Faster computer processors and more moldable plastics are examples.

Then there is what MIT is doing. One counterpoint to the proposition that nanotechnology does not yet deserve its hype is the example of Institute Professor Bob Langer ScD ’74, who is lauded for his pharmacy on a chip concept. Langer, who has 750 issued and pending patents worldwide, builds silicon silvers that contain tiny reservoirs of medicines programmed to be released in precise locations, such as a narrowed artery or tumor site.

Another is MIT materials engineer Angela Belcher who applied a longtime fascination with abalone mollusks to train viruses to assemble batteries, which may someday power pacemakers or hybrid cars. In a 2009 Cambridge Science Festival interview, she describes her work. The potential is vast–and the federal government is supporting next generation batteries with billions of dollars including $249 million to nano-battery designer A123 Systems founded by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang ’80, ScD ’85. Learn more from the MIT Energy Initiative spotlight on tiny battery research.

Testing ancient technology

Testing ancient technology

A full-size balsa-wood raft, crafted like those used in pre-Columbian Pacific trade, set sail on the Charles River May 10, piloted by students in MIT’s Materials in the Human Experience course. The last such castoff occurred 500 years ago.

The replica was based on an analysis carried out by Professor Dorothy Hosler and her former student Leslie Dewan ‘06, which was published last year in the Journal of Anthropological Research.

The replica was built to confirm the computer analysis of the craft’s size, capacity, and construction and to prove that such a vessel could have made voyages of thousands of miles along the Pacific coast between Mexico and Chile ferrying goods a millennium ago. More tests follow this summer.

Chocolate truffles for all!

Chocolate truffles for all!

You may–or may not–know that chocolate has six crystalline states and that heating it too quickly can separate its molecules and cause it to become gritty. The science of chocolate blends with the pleasure when MIT students and alumni put that knowledge to delicious use as members of MIT’s Laboratory for Chocolate Science.

This chocolate appreciation club, inspired by truffle-making parties hosted by then-student Ariel Segall ’04, continues as an eclectic bunch of chocolatiers who share the fruits of their work–hot chocolate during exams, truffle sales, IAP science of chocolate lectures, and chocolate tastings open to the public. Near campus? Check their Web site for the next mouth-watering event.

You can do this at home: watch the video to learn how to make tea-infused dark chocolate truffles.

A 3-D intensity profile of reflected infrared light from the MIT-made mirror fiber.

In 2002, Fink created high-performance mirrors in the shape of hair-like flexible fibers--here "MIT" is rendered in mirror fiber.

A 19-year-old’s life was saved after his brain surgeon stumbled across information on a technology created at MIT. In December, a North Carolina surgeon was feeling down after a failed brain tumor surgery–he could only remove 20 percent of the tumor. That night, after putting his kids to bed, he was browsing CNN online when he discovered the exact tool he needed. Emails flew and within 72 hours he had the flexible, guided laser device (video) in his hands. A day later, he used it to incinerate and remove the remaining tumor.

The Omni Guide device was based on the invention of perfect mirrors created by Associate Professor Yoel Fink PhD ’00, when he was a graduate student. The device was originally designed for the military and only available to surgeons since fall. The device delivers a high-powered CO2 laser beam through a highly flexible fiber. See the device in action. Learn more about Fink’s research developing entirely new classes of fiber devices and other materials science news. Hot stuff!