TED 2012: Flying robots and liquid batteries

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, TED 2012, Los Angeles

Image caption,
Among tech demonstrated at TED was a virtual operating table

"The future is bright."

Donald Sadoway, professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), means that pretty literally.

He has developed a liquid metal battery which he thinks could finally harness renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to the main electricity grid.

It was just one of several cutting-edge technologies on show at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Los Angeles.

Liquid power

Image caption,
Can a giant battery make wind power more reliable?

Renewable energies have great potential to solve diminishing natural resources but they are unreliable - if the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine they simply don't work.

But imagine if the energy that they generate could be stored in a giant battery?

Such a battery would need to be to be low-cost, a problem which has until now prevented such developments.

"In the past battery research has been driven by advanced chemistry that was expensive with the hope that mass production would see the price fall.

"The major difference with my group was that we would only consider components that have a chance of meeting the right price point," said Prof Sadoway.

On a decidedly low-tech chalk board, he demonstrated to the TED audience how he developed his first battery.


At its simplest it is composed of three layers. Liquid metals of different densities - and maintained at temperatures of around 500 degrees Celsius - sandwich a layer of molten salt.

The metals act as positive and negative electrodes, and the salt as the electrolyte.

The battery creates a current in the same way as a traditional battery and, by reversing the current, can also re-energise itself.

Prof Sadoway and his team have gradually scaled up the size of the battery and named each one accordingly from shot glass to pizza to the latest iteration - a 36-inch version dubbed "bistro table".

The aim is to put them together to make a giant battery which could be used within the electricity grid or to power homes.

Prof Sadoway believes that the batteries are just two years away from commercial production and are significantly cheaper to produce than lithium-ion equivalents.

Image caption,
The TED audience is always on the look out for a wow moment

In preparation he has spun off a company, Liquid Metal Battery Corporation, which has some high profile backers including Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"If we are going to get the country out of the current energy crisis, we can't drill our way out, we can't bomb our way out but we can do it in the old-fashioned way - invent our way out," he said to rapt applause.

Flying robots

TEDsters, as those attending the conference are known, are always on the look-out for what they call their TED moment - something shown in the auditorium that completely wows them.

In the past that has been delivered by people such as Jeff Han who demoed his breakthrough touch technology in 2006, a video which has now been viewed over 2 million times on the TED website.

This year a video of flying robots developed by Vijay Kumar and his team at Pennsylvania university seemed to impress the audience.

It showed a team of helicopter-style robots working as a team to construct a small model. In a tribute to TED, the robots alsoperformed the James Bond theme tune using real instruments.

'Cute hummingbird'

Image caption,
The Hummingbird drone is beautiful despite its military applications

Darpa (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) director Regina Dugan also had a flying demo, this time of a tiny drone developed by the research arm of the US Department of Defense.

The hummingbird drone is designed as a spy camera and the hope is that its disguise will make it less obvious, or as TED curator Chris Anderson put it: "Look at that cute hummingbird flying into my headquarters."

He also asked Ms Regina, who was not available for press interviews, how she managed to sleep at night, knowing the military applications that the tech Darpa is designing is destined for.

"You have to be mindful of the unintended consequences. You wouldn't be human if you didn't ask those questions," she said.

Virtual surgeons?

Tech designed to help the medical world was also on display. A virtual operating table which offers a 3D image of the body and all its anatomy allows medical students to view a virtual patient and remove skin, muscle and examine organs as they would with a cadaver.

It can also be used by surgeons to plan how they will perform operations.

Jack Choi, chief executive of the company behind the table, has already sold three to universities including Stanford and University College in London - at a cost of £60,000 each.

One day Mr Choi believes that the technology could go even further.

"We could have robotic surgery merged with this system," he said.

Mr Anderson said such a surgeon would be welcome on the TED stage and offered up one of the TEDsters as its first patient.

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