And the Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to: The lithium-ion battery

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is awarding the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to the inventors of the lithium-ion battery John. B Goodenough from the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham from Binghamton University, State University of New York, and Akira Yoshino from Asahi Kasei Corporation/Meijo University.

It is almost impossible to imagine our lives without these lightweight and rechargeable batteries. The lithium-ion battery has allowed for the electronics revolution to happen by powering our phones, laptops, tablets and electric vehicles; it also allows us to store solar and wind power.

A battery consists of several electrochemical cells connected to produce electricity from an electrochemical reaction that occur at two electrodes, one negatively charged anode from where the lithium ions flow to the positively charged cathode during discharged and back during charging.

When the researchers started working on the battery back in the 1970s the world was heavily reliant on oil and there was an oil crisis going on, so Whittingham wanted to develop a method that could lead to a fossil-fuel free energy technology. With that goal in mind and while studying superconductors, he developed an extremely energy-rich material to use as cathode, titanium disulphide, that allowed lithium ions to move freely. The batteries anode was made of lithium, which is the lightest known metal and has a proclivity to release electrons. The battery was good, but still presented a safety hazard as when repeatedly recharged, it had the risk of exploding. Goodenough improved the battery by replacing the titanium disulphide cathode with cobalt oxide, doubling the battery’s voltage while also increasing the energy capacity. With the basis set, Yoshino invented the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. However, he replaced the reactive lithium in the anode with a carbon material called petroleum coke, which made the battery safer and, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, could also intercalate lithium ions. The result was a lightweight and durable battery.

“Lithium-ion batteries are a great example of how chemistry can transform peoples’ lives” said Bonnie Charpentier, president of the American Chemical Society.

A curious fact is that Goodenough at 97 years old is the oldest Nobel Prize winner. And he is still active in material science research with the goal of achieving an energy-efficient and more sustainable battery. A fierce believer in letting go of fossil fuels, he once said “I’m interested in putting the oil and gas industry out of business” which really demonstrates his spirit and ambition. He also made the random access memory possible in the 1950s and has received the highest U.S. honor for scientists from President Obama, the National Medal of Science. I did not get to meet him while studying at the University of Texas at Austin; but as a student volunteer at Energy Week in 2015, I was helping prepare the name tags for the attendees and I prepared his. During the conference, we definitely were in the same building though. So that was almost good enough.


NobelPrize.org, Quanta Magazine, UT News, Houston Chronicle

Featured image: Nobel Media

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