Lithium-ion battery scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry

Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives by powering gadgets like smartphones, laptops and even cars.

And the prospect of using batteries to store power from renewable sources is the cornerstone of an environmentally-friendly future.

Now the people responsible for developing the lithium ion battery technology have just been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

‘This is a highly charged story of tremendous potential,’ quipped Olof Ramstrom of the Nobel committee for chemistry.

The prize announced Wednesday went to John B. Goodenough, 97, an engineering professor at the University of Texas; M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton; and Akira Yoshino, 71, of chemical company Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University in Japan.

‘The heart of the phone is the rechargeable battery. The heart of the electric vehicle is the rechargeable battery. The success and failure of so many new technologies depends on the batteries,’ said Alexej Jerschow, a chemist at New York University, whose research focuses on the lithium-ion battery.

Goodenough, who is considered an intellectual giant of solid state chemistry and physics, is the oldest person to ever win a Nobel Prize – edging out Arthur Ashkin, who was 96 when he was awarded the Nobel for physics last year.

Goodenough said he is grateful he was not forced to retire at age 65.

‘So I’ve had an extra 33 years to keep working,’ he told reporters in London, where he was to accept another prize.

The three scientists each had unique breakthroughs that laid the foundation for the development of a commercial rechargeable battery, an alternative to older alkaline batteries containing lead, nickel or zinc that had their origins in the 19th century.

All batteries store chemical energy that can be converted into electricity. But earlier batteries were unsafe, too heavy or not rechargeable – limiting their practical use

In the 1970s, Whittingham, who had researched superconductors at Stanford University, was hired by Exxon at a time when the petroleum giant was investing in research on energy storage. Whittingham harnessed the tendency of lithium – the lightest metal – to give away its electrons to make a lightweight battery capable of generating just over two volts.

By 1980, building on Whittingham’s work, Goodenough had doubled the capacity of the battery to four volts by using cobalt oxide in the cathode – one of two electrodes, along with the anode, that make up the ends of a battery. But that battery remained too unstable for general commercial use. That’s where Yoshino’s work in the 1980s came in. He eliminated the volatile pure lithium from the battery, and instead opted for lithium ions that are safer. He added another material in one electrode that reduced the potential for fires.

This step paved the way for the first lightweight, safe, durable and rechargeable commercial batteries to be built and enter the market in 1991.

The three winners will share a 9-million kronor (£750,000) cash award. Their gold medals and diplomas will be conferred in Stockholm on Dec. 10 – the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

‘Lithium-ion itself is still full of unknowns,’ said Yoshino, who said he visits Goodenough nearly every year in Texas.

‘For him, I’m like his son,’ he said. ‘He takes very good care of me.’

Goodenough, in his own way, seemed to return the favor, telling reporters that in all of his 97 years: ‘What am I most proud of? I don’t know, I would say all my friends.’

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