Photo illustration by Kelvin Li
What will it take to get to a world where we have all the energy we need — without the emissions, smog and other climate impacts? The shift requires a rapid draw-down on carbon-based fuels and the use of energy storage technologies. And while lithium batteries have been instrumental in the transition, supply chain and sustainability issues are of increasing concern. We need to think beyond the battery. In this episode, we’re looking into how new materials might get us one step closer in the on-going transition to a clean energy future. From using AI to speed up discovery to developing the applications of a shape-shifting metal alloy, we explore new materials that will help us harness clean energy.
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Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Save the Planet here. And below find a transcript to the eighth episode “The race to discover new materials”
Manjula Selvarajah: A clean energy future is possible, but there’s one big barrier: energy storage. Whether the sun is shining or not, we need power. Even though renewable power is renewable — how we store it, that’s another story. Batteries are an increasingly important part of how we transition off of fossil fuels, but reporting shows that there are serious concerns about batteries right now and the materials that go into them; and the demand for lithium is already outpacing supply.
Molly Wood: The batteries we have now, we have because of hard decades of scientific work. And so the idea that we can sort of spin on a dime and create new battery technology — that’s a hard tech problem.
Manjula Selvarajah: This is Solve for X: Innovations to Save the Planet, a series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science that could help us tackle climate change. I’m Manjula Selvarajah. Today, we’re looking into how new material discovery might get us one step closer to a clean energy future.
Molly Wood: You know, it’s so easy to sort of sit here and say: our kids are going to live in this wasteland, and it’s going to be a nightmare, and it’s going to be apocalyptic and things will be getting worse and worse. I think there’s just as much chance that it could be the opposite, that they could live in an energy utopia. If we solve this technology — and it is solvable — it’s literally a matter of will and money and genius, which we have an abundance on this planet.
Manjula Selvarajah: That’s Molly Wood, a climate investor at a venture capital firm called Launch. You might recognize her voice from Marketplace on NPR.
Molly Wood: If you start to imagine what we could do in a world where we had effectively unlimited energy — there is not a problem that we can’t solve.
Manjula Selvarajah: As a journalist, Molly followed tech and business for over 20 years, covering climate solutions and then investing in them; that gives her an interesting vantage point. I sat down with Molly over Zoom to talk about emerging technology and the future of clean energy storage.
So, here you were working as a journalist — working on covering climate change. And then you decided to work on scaling climate tech. Why did you decide to shift careers?
Molly Wood: I think because of the scope and scale of the problem, I just wanted to have boots on the ground, if you will. I thought: there’s always a role for storytelling. It’s very valuable. I’m still doing some of it — I do a weekly segment spotlighting climate startups. But I also thought to myself: I don’t have any time to change minds. The idea of being able to have such a direct impact, to write a cheque that would help build a company that would create solutions and careers and passion and momentum around this, was just something that I couldn’t pass up. I think it was my basic impatience that made me want to do it now.
Manjula Selvarajah: Last year, Molly hosted a podcast called How We Survive. It’s about climate tech. One of the topics she covered was about the race to build a better battery.
Molly Wood: I started actually looking into adaptation and resilience solutions, which is how I landed on the title How We Survive, and it sort of only broadened out from there. And I started interviewing startups that were working on climate solutions and venture capitalists who were investing in climate solutions and then got the opportunity to be a VC myself. But I think what I learned is that, if we focus less on the problem and more on what we can do to fix it, we will actually uncover a treasure trove of human innovation and actually a lot of financial incentive to get after it.
Manjula Selvarajah: Now one of the terms that we came across in doing research for this episode is “tough tech”. What is the working definition that you have in your head of tough tech?
Molly Wood: We talk about hard tech a lot, which is probably in the exact same campus as tough tech or what I sometimes call hard tech. And it’s the idea that it’s technology that is on the frontiers of science, that it’s going to take years and years of research and development and commercialization in order to get there.
Manjula Selvarajah: And very much needed as a solution, which is what makes it interesting. You don’t have the 20 years — or the five years even — let’s say.
Molly Wood: Right. Exactly. And how I came to actually covering batteries and lithium and battery technology was to say: OK, climate is the big problem — what are the component parts of solving it? Most people agreed that one of the most impactful things that we can do is transition away from fossil fuels. Get off of fossil fuels and get to renewable energy, and electrify everything. All right, well what does that take? That takes solar. That takes wind deployment. In order to store all that energy so that it’s not intermittent, you need batteries. What goes in batteries? And the deeper you dig, the more you uncover a smaller, much more manageable list of things that need to be solved.
Manjula Selvarajah: What role do you think that new materials play in the transition to clean energy?
Molly Wood: When it comes to new materials, every solution is on the table; and there are going to be investments in different types of energy storage. Recently, I spoke with a company that is doing some sort of kinetic magnetic energy storage. And I couldn’t even describe it — it involves a cylinder that sort of floats magnetically off the ground and it collects energy and distributes it more efficiently instead of in big chunks, and it makes it cheaper and easier to charge. You know, there are different types of iron that are being tried out in batteries — so there’s a lot of cool science out there that we just could not possibly have imagined in the days before AI and CRISPR, for example.
Manjula Selvarajah: New ways of doing science are expanding what we even thought possible. AI in particular will play a critical role.
Molly Wood: I have talked to other scientists actually, around battery tech specifically, who have said that this is a crucial piece of speeding up this kind of basic science and basic discovery process. That if you don’t have to take 40 years to understand materials and materials interactions — that you can have a computer run all of these simulations. In fact, the scientists that I talked to described it as trying to bake a cake. You could at least have a robot or an algorithm put together all of the ingredients and see if the cake was going to rise. And you’d come in in the morning and you’d have — these three recipes worked, these 175,000 recipes did not work — only focus on these three. You’ve taken this big, huge chunk of repetition off of the plate of humans, and maybe taken months or even years off of the process. That is phenomenally valuable and a real advantage that didn’t exist before recent times.
Manjula Selvarajah: How we store power is a key part of how we get off of fossil fuels. It’s estimated that we’ll need a hundred times more energy storage by 2040 to make the shift to renewables. Can we find a new material or a new way to store energy before it’s too late? I reached out to a scientist who’s working with AI to speed up the next breakthrough in battery material. Alán Aspuru-Guzik is a professor of chemistry, computer science, chemical engineering and material science at the University of Toronto.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: I work at the interface of AI, chemistry and material science, trying to accelerate the discovery of molecules for materials for society.
Manjula Selvarajah: He’s built an autonomous or self-driving lab to help accelerate that discovery of promising materials.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: Taking a molecule from discovery to market, historically is 25 years long. We just don’t have the time to discover materials as usual, and this process can accelerate it by at least a factor of 10.
Manjula Selvarajah: Traditionally, material scientists methodically test each combination. Creating a lab with AI not only cuts down on the grunt work, but also helps identify where to go next.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: As the data comes in, it’s adapting its strategy to try to get to that novel molecule material that you really want.
Manjula Selvarajah: While Alán was at Harvard, he built a computer program that aided in the discovery of a new molecule. The molecule is called Methuselah and it’s the key ingredient in a new kind of battery called an organic flow battery; and it’s quite different from the batteries we know and use at home.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: This application of flow batteries does have the potential to be transformative for humanity. Because if you think about transitioning the world to renewables, the sun doesn’t shine at night. Where are you going to store all the extra electrons that you need to produce and use, when you are not having sun or wind or hydro? That’s where the flow battery comes in. And we don’t want to have an Elon Musk world of lithium batteries that are flammable — and there are problems about extracting lithium — we want to have a more free, bottom-up world where we’re using these organic materials to store such energy.
Manjula Selvarajah: I asked Alán how it compares to existing battery technology.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: Lithium is very energy dense, so that means you can be carrying your little slim iPhone around and it has a lot of power available. Ours is way less energy dense but uses water as a solvent (lithium is flammable). It’s extremely cheap, and therefore you can imagine this very useful for applications where you don’t care too much about the volume where you’re storing water. I grew up in Mexico City where people have gas tanks above their homes. About the same size of tank filled with our chemicals — two of them will be enough — to store the energy overnight for your house. That’s kind of the level that you imagine, but imagine utility scale; more like those oil tanks that you see in the airports… huge ones. You can imagine those filled with our liquids and our powders.
Manjula Selvarajah: At his U of T lab, Alán is excited about a new class of molecules they’ve uncovered that’s showing similar promise.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: Two billion people in the world have no access to electricity regularly. So for those people, a combination of solar and organic flow battery could be a great solution for the developing world. What I really think is the most important thing is to create large-scale plants that will store the sunlight and the wind when it’s intermittent and be able to draw from it large amounts of energy — to never turn on a coal-fired power plant or an oil based power plant. That’s what moves the needle.
Manjula Selvarajah: This breakthrough could have a massive impact globally, but Alán cautions that with great power comes great responsibility.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: There was a paper recently that used the same tools that we use on the AI side to predict a bunch of toxic, poisonous materials. So we are going to run a workshop, based on this acceleration consortium that I lead at the University of Toronto, on these kinds of ethics problems. Because obviously we build these machines that are like 3D printers, but for materials — they create materials. If you build this machine and now suddenly you can print paracetamol at home, maybe that’s great. But if you can print paracetamol, you could also print something that kills a person. So every time you have a technology, you have to think about what kind of evils are associated with it. And therefore technologies that allow us to constrain what the machines can do — oversight, regulation, et cetera, other things that we have at our disposal. So yes, every good technology (like nuclear power has nuclear weapons next to it) — as its counterpart will also have potentially evil applications. And we just have to think about the ethics of that and the implementations as early as possible.
Manjula Selvarajah: Alán reminds us that the scientific work his team is doing has to work in tandem with policy.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik: I’m not a politician, I’m a scientist; the only thing I can do is accelerate technology development. So to me — I’m a person that’s anxious about what’s happening in the world — and it’s a way of focusing my energy into something productive that I hope has some potential to do something better for the planet. And I know if all of us did a little bit of that, we all move a notch in the right direction.
Manjula Selvarajah: So what Alán’s working on at U of T — the self-driving lab, using AI to help speed up materials discovery — that could make a huge difference in how we store renewable energy, getting us closer to that dream of a more sustainable battery. But experts say we’re going to need a lot more than batteries; we’re going to need a portfolio of different kinds of energy storage — from compressed air to pumped hydro to thermal. We may also need to think beyond the battery. After all, there is energy all around us. Think about it. Every time your pants rub together, there’s friction; or the heat from your laptop, that’s energy wasted. And right now researchers are looking into the potential for capturing some of that waste. Back to climate tech expert, Molly Wood.
Molly Wood: One of the interviews I did for How We Survive actually was with this group of people who live out in the desert in this place called Slab City, completely off the grid. And sort of I described it as if the apocalypse already happened — that’s where they are. But that’s where I met one of the most innovative inventors I’ve ever encountered, and he was figuring out ways to have sand fall through a tube as energy storage. He was talking about — why do all these people go to Soul Cycle classes, and sit there and pedal for an hour and generate a bunch of energy that goes nowhere. Why would a Soul Cycle facility not be capturing that energy and turning it into the power that they need to run that facility for that hour?
Manjula Selvarajah: More than 60 percent of the energy we produce on Earth is lost in the form of waste heat. Now some of that (if it’s hot enough) can get captured and used for things like district heating, but the challenge is capturing heat at lower temperatures. It’s something that Ibraheem Khan, a material scientist turned entrepreneur, is working on right now in Canada.
Ibraheem Khan: It’s very hard to see heat. And in Canada, you often see it in the winter. So you may see a lot more smoke coming out of a building — the interpretation is that’s pollution coming out of a site. But it’s often just heat that’s being emitted into the atmosphere because of industrial processes, industrial buildings; there is just heat that needs to be rejected or removed and it’s energy — free energy — that’s being lost.
Manjula Selvarajah: One industry Ibraheem is looking into? Data centres.
Ibraheem Khan: The amount of energy you put into a data center is pretty significant, and only 5 percent of that energy is converted into computing. So 95 percent of it is lost in the form of waste heat. One of the key costs of running a data centre is the amount of energy needed to remove that heat.
Manjula Selvarajah: But finding ways to remove heat and then transform it into electricity — that gets even more complicated. Ibraheem is developing a heat engine to do just that. It’s kind of a generator that takes waste heat, and converts it into electricity.
Ibraheem Khan: We simply plug into that effluence of heat, scrub that of energy using our smart material, and that energy will convert into electricity, and then that electricity will be fed back into the data center. So overall requirements for electricity reduce pretty significantly.
Manjula Selvarajah: He dreams of the day where this type of technology could be deployed in many different kinds of industries. I asked him to show me the prototype up close.
Ibraheem, where are we standing right now?
Ibraheem Khan: We’re in the lab/shop floor where we do rapid prototyping and development, as well as testing of products that we develop here.
Manjula Selvarajah: The day I visited his company Extract Energy, the team was testing the prototype at 80 degrees. The clicking sound you hear? That’s the machine working.
So tell me what I’m looking at right now in front of me here.
Ibraheem Khan: This is essentially kind of like the cylinder of an engine. So what we have is the material, which when it’s exposed to the heat will contract. And then you have either expansion or contraction of the material when it’s exposed to the heat. So behind this tube is really where the intellectual property lies. And a lot of work is done to optimize that material to function efficiently at those temperatures.
Manjula Selvarajah: The material Ibraheem mentioned, it’s called nitinol or nickel titanium; it’s a silvery metal alloy. You’ll find it in biomedical devices and in dentistry, and it’s kind of like Ibraheem’s secret ingredient. Ibraheem walked me through how it works inside the heat engine.
Ibraheem Khan: We flush that warm water — that has been scrubbed of its energy — with cold water, which then brings the material to a malleable state. That happens in a cyclic fashion, and that’s what you’re hearing — you’re hearing the valving clicking, and there’s essentially the material going from hot to cold, hot to cold.
Manjula Selvarajah: When you apply heat to nitinol, it looks like it has a mind of its own. It expands and moves and then returns back to its original shape. It turns out scientists have been fascinated by nitinol for decades. There was even a proof of concept for a heat engine from an aerospace company back in the eighties.
So, a nitinol heat engine was created in the ’80s — if it was invented in the ’80s, why isn’t it already a viable option?
Ibraheem Khan: Nitinol is in its infancy compared to other materials. So steel and aluminum and copper, bronze — we’ve known these materials for hundreds of years and have optimized them and deployed them in many applications. Nitinol was discovered in the 1960s.
Manjula Selvarajah: Ibraheem had a breakthrough with the material when he was working on his PhD in 2008. Since then, he’s been refining and optimizing the commercial applications of this metal.
Ibraheem Khan: Over time we’ve developed these materials to realize higher efficiency outputs, higher cycle life. So now that magic becomes more of a science. And that’s really what we’re using here — which is also combining our core technology, including the multiple material technology — to maximize the efficiency. And we now better understand the material and can properly deploy it for the heat engine application as well as other applications.
Manjula Selvarajah: Using this material to capture waste heat at scale could transform how we approach industrial cooling. I asked Ibraheem about the hurdles involved in realizing the climate application of this material.
Ibraheem Khan: We’re a hard tech, so we have physical materials. You’ve seen the space in the back where we have a lot of equipment and it takes a lot of capital and energy. In fact, here we generate revenue by straightening teeth because that’s one of the applications that we’ve deployed this material; and all of that revenue is directed toward realizing the clean technology application that we’re working in.
Manjula Selvarajah: Imagine in the future we have engines like Ibraheem’s capturing heat and feeding it back to industry of all shapes and sizes. It would be a world where heat is viewed as a renewable resource. Back to Molly Wood.
What do you think that potential is? I mean, when you look at the future, what do you think the potential is for waste heat?
Molly Wood: I mean, it’s huge. What I’m actually discovering is the potential for waste overall is massive. I mean, just the idea of waste should go away. There should never be a concept of waste heat in a world where people need heat to not die. So waste heat, absolutely. Also, kinetic energy, food waste, agriculture waste. I mean, it turns out turkey poop is incredibly valuable for creating biofuels. I think there’s almost limitless potential in the things that we create and waste — and waste heat as a sort of “energy creation device” is just the start. Love it.
Manjula Selvarajah: I was curious what Molly’s thoughts are on using materials like nitinol to harness energy from data centres. Of course, she had her investor hat on.
Molly Wood: I mean, are they raising money? Do they want to have a conversation with me?
Manjula Selvarajah: [laughing] I don’t even want to release that portion. You’ll get a call tomorrow morning!
Molly Wood: No, no totally! Exactly — “Let’s talk.”
Manjula Selvarajah: But it’s not just the materials and solutions that interest her, it’s also the innovators behind them.
Molly Wood: What I love about the environment that we’re in right now — this kind of surge in innovation and funding and interest — is that people are looking at existing problems in different ways. Problems that they once thought were not solvable (maybe), or problems that they were solving with… let’s say the question of heat and data centres, the big innovation around cooling data centers was evaporative cooling, right? We’ll just wrap water all around it and it’ll evaporate and that’ll cool it and that’ll be great. But the idea of using hard science and frontier tech and existing materials that we know work, is all down to creativity. It’s all down to the entrepreneur, the scientist. I talked to a company today that is developing battery diagnostics for electric cars, for EVs — high capacity batteries. This, incredibly, does not exist right now. And it took a grad student in power transfer, somebody studying electricity and conductivity, to examine some other form of measuring conductivity and electricity and go: I bet you could apply this to high-capacity batteries, and you could easily see how much life is left in an EV battery without blowing yourself up in the process — and we should turn that into a company. And it’s a super simple solution that could unlock a resale market for electric vehicles, that could help car makers figure out when to recycle the batteries that they already have in their fleet. And it just takes one person who knows something, applying that thing to a problem that it hadn’t previously been applied to, and all of a sudden you have a solution — and it’s like that magical. I’m not saying that none of that is not complicated. It’s obviously very complicated and scientific, but it’s the thought process, the breaking out of the status quo mould of how we’ve always solved things — or never tried to solve them — that I find totally inspiring.
Manjula Selvarajah: You know, that is actually a really interesting way to look at it. And that’s what you’re getting; you’re almost getting people in other spaces who are bringing their expertise into existing ones.
Molly Wood: And I think that’s what’s really promising is saying — if you’re the person who knows that nitinol is an incredible heat conductor, and you start looking at things that generate and waste a lot of heat, you’re going to land on data centres real soon; that’s going to be like two Google searches. And all of a sudden you have found a nail because you looked at the component parts of the problem instead of the global scale problem, which doesn’t feel solvable.
Manjula Selvarajah: So the future is clean, bright, and hopefully full of green renewable storage. But sometimes the time it takes to develop hard tech doesn’t align with the way venture capital flows.
Molly Wood: In the venture capital world, we think in 10 year timelines; 10 years is the legal life of a fund. It’s not arbitrary — it’s actually a part of the special purpose vehicle that is a venture capital fund. All of the money has to be returned within 10 years (hopefully with a bunch of extra on top of it if we have done our jobs right). And when it comes to frontier tech, say technology that involves a lot of R&D — maybe 10 years of R&D before it can even be turned into a product, and then that product has to be grown into something that’s hugely commercially successful — historically, venture capitalists have said that’s not investable for us because we just can’t operate on those timelines. You are starting to see more funds, Breakthrough Energy Fund is an example where it’s a 20 year time horizon, or a 12-year time horizon, where they’re starting to try to rewrite the rules of the fund. Because on the one hand, we need to move quickly in many ways, but on the other hand, we may actually have to develop new technology that takes 20 years. So if we look at different funding mechanisms, it might be that we start to create new financial structures that allow for that investment with more patient investors behind them.
Manjula Selvarajah: Looking to the future, Breakthrough Energy (Bill Gates’ Fund) is working on commercializing all kinds of new climate technology. The goal is to meet the scale of the climate problem by investing in net-new solutions.
Molly, do you think we can find new sources of power? Or do you think we just need to find a new way of doing things?
Molly Wood: I think some of both. We have the new source of power. When I talk to investors and scientists, one of the frustrating things is that we absolutely have all the technology we need right now. It’s solar and wind; if you layer on geothermal, you really do have all the renewable energy you need. We have a giant fusion reactor in the sky, and all we have to do is build the infrastructure for it. And that’s actually frustrating but also really reassuring, because economically speaking — solar and wind are also the cheapest electrons on the planet. We may be having a brief resurgence right now of natural gas, and coal and oil, because there are energy shortages and disruptions because of the war in Ukraine — that’s a hundred percent temporary. Economically speaking, it just does not make sense to stay on fossil fuels when renewables are as cheap as they are. But the more you can enable, either renewable energy at scale, or something like fusion — the more you start to imagine a world that’s way better than the one that we have now.
Manjula Selvarajah: It’s interesting because the second vision that you paint; this idea of possibly a world with limitless energy, using a climate friendly solution. There’s the potential that it could allow us to imagine more in so many realms, but also it could reduce the amount of people that live right now with energy poverty, around the world. I think that you and I — we’re doing this podcast, and we live in this nice little world, where we can go out now and boil a cup of water — what do all journalists do? Have a nice cup of tea, perhaps a lovely cup of coffee. But there are a ton of people in the world that live with energy poverty; that even making something like that or having a call like this, is probably most of the energy that they need for other things in the month.
Molly Wood: It’s absolutely true. And so when we talk about the transition to renewable energy, that seems very obvious. It seems very obvious in wealthy countries, and the countries to be deeply concerned about the reason we need more renewable deployment quickly. And something like fusion that could potentially be this portable, limitless energy source is because you look at a country like Indonesia, which has 300 million people in it, and most of them do not have electricity. If that country comes online with diesel — which right now is the cheapest and easiest option — we cook. And so I certainly don’t want to pretend that it’s only rosy. There is this opportunity to solve energy poverty, to have equitable energy distribution, and a future that solves our biggest issues and also saves people’s lives. There is no question whatsoever that my impatience is warranted. We need to get to work.
Manjula Selvarajah: We should all be impatient. There’s every chance that the world could be a lot worse tomorrow. But like Molly says, we have the technology we need to build a cleaner future. Now comes the hard part: rethinking how we do things, scaling the production of more sustainable batteries, harnessing energy in new ways. If we can do all that, the future will be a far less daunting prospect.
Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. David Paterson provided editing support. Mack Swain composed the theme song and all the music in this episode. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer. I’m your host Manjula Selvarajah.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on our first season of Solve for X. If you have any tips for what else we should cover, or feedback or thoughts you’d like to share, you can email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mission from MaRS initiative was created to help scale carbon reducing innovations by working to remove the barriers to adopting new technology. Mission from MaRS thanks its founding partners, HSBC, Trottier Family Foundation, RBC Tech for Nature and Thistledown Foundation. It has also received generous support from Peter Gilgan Foundation, BDC, EDC and Mitsubishi Corporation Americas. Learn more about the program at missionfrommars.ca.