By Teodor Teofilov
The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on October 9 to three scientists who developed the lithium-ion batteries that revolutionized portable electronic devices. It is very likely that the device you are using to read this article is powered by such a battery. Larger versions of the lithium-ion batteries are used in electric cars for long distance travel and miniaturized versions are used in some medical devices like defibrillators.
John B. Goodenough, Cockrell Chair in Engineering at The University of Texas, M. Stanley Whittingham, Distinguished Professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and Akira Yoshino, Honorary Fellow at Asahi Kasei Corporation, Tokyo, Japan and professor at Meijo University, Nagoya, Japan, will share the prize, which is worth about $900,000.
“Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991,” said the press release. “They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”
“Live to 97 [years old] and you can do anything,” Goodenough said in a statement. “I’m honored and humbled to win the Nobel Prize. I thank all my friends for the support and assistance throughout my life.”
Whittingham laid the foundation for the lithium-ion battery during the oil crisis in the 1970s. He worked on creating methods that would lead to fossil fuel-free energy technologies. While researching superconductors, Whittingham discovered an extremely energy-rich material, which he used to create an innovative cathode — the side of your battery with the plus sign — in a lithium battery. He discovered that titanium disulfide, which had never been used in batteries before, had a molecular structure that allowed lithium-ions into small pockets. This resulted in the first functional lithium battery.
Whittingham’s new battery had an unfortunate problem — when charged repeatedly, thin strands of metallic lithium would grow out from the negative electrode. They would sometimes grow so long that they reached the cathode and would short-circuit the battery, and could explode.
Whittingham, was recruited to work at Exxon in the 1970s. This energy-rich material excited Exxon management — until the first lithium batteries began to short-circuit and catch fire.
“They had a few explosions, and decided to get out of the alternative-energy business,” Goodenough told the New Yorker in 2010.
Goodenough predicted that the lithium-ion batteries would have greater potential if the cathode was made from a different material — using a metal oxide instead of a metal sulphide. In 1980, he noticed that cobalt oxide was similar in structure to titanium disulfide and could tolerate having lithium pushed into it and pulled out multiple times. This made the battery twice as powerful as Whittingham’s, which generated two volts.
Yoshino built on Goodenough’s work and showed that more complicated carbon-based electrodes could house lithium-ions in between their layers as well. This made the system use only lithium-ions instead of pure lithium in the battery, because they are safer. Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985, which later led to its commercialization by Japanese electronics giant Sony Corporation.
The lithium-ion batteries that resulted were lightweight, hardwearing and could be charged hundreds of times before their performance deteriorated. The advantage of these batteries is that they aren’t based on chemical reactions that break down the electrodes, but upon lithium ions flowing back and forth between the anode and cathode.
“Through their work, they have created the right conditions for a wireless and fossil fuel-free society, and so brought the greatest benefit to humankind,” the Nobel Foundation wrote.
Lithium batteries have already dramatically changed how we handle energy and scientists are continuing to develop and improve them. Even if these improvements don’t happen, now seems to be a good time to honor the people who played key roles in getting us here.
“We can see an enormous, dramatic effect on society because of this fantastic battery,” professor Olof Ramström, member of the Nobel Committee, told freelance journalist Joanna Rose.