The battery might be the least sexy piece of technology ever invented. The lack of glamour is especially conspicuous on the lower floors of MIT’s materials science department, where one lab devoted to building and testing the next world-changing energy storage device could easily be mistaken for a storage closet.

At the back of the cramped room, Donald Sadoway, a silver-haired electrochemist in a trim black-striped suit and expensive-looking shoes, rummages through a plastic tub of parts like a kid in search of a particular Lego. He sets a pair of objects on the table, each about the size and shape of a can of soup with all the inherent drama of a paperweight.

No wonder it’s so hard to get anyone excited about batteries. But these paperweights — er, battery cells — could be the technology that revolutionizes our energy system.

Because batteries aren’t just boring. Frankly, they kinda suck. At best, the batteries that power our daily lives are merely invisible — easily drained reservoirs of power packed into smartphones and computers and cars. At worst, they are expensive, heavy, combustible, complicated to dispose of properly, and prone to dying in the cold or oozing corrosive fluid. Even as the devices they power become slimmer and smarter, batteries are still waiting for their next upgrade. Computer processors famously double their capacity every two years; batteries may scrounge only a few percentage points of improvement in the same amount of time.

Early prototypes of Sadoway's battery cell.
Early prototypes of Sadoway’s battery cell. Grist / Amelia Urry

Nevertheless, the future will be battery-powered. It has to be. From electric cars to industrial-scale solar farms, batteries are the key to a cleaner, more efficient energy system — and the sooner we get there, the sooner we can stop contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change.

But the batteries we’ve got — mostly lithium-ion — aren’t good enough. There’s been some progress: The cost of storing energy has fallen by half over the last five years, and big companies are increasingly making marquee investments in the technology, like Tesla’s ‘gigafactory.’ But in terms of wholesale economic transformation, lithium-ion batteries remain too expensive. They are powerful in our devices, but when you scale them up they are liable to overheat and even, occasionally, explode.