Three people are primarily responsible for creating the rechargeable lithium ion battery that has become the preferred power source for personal digital devices, energy storage, and electric car batteries today — John Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University. This year, the three will share the 9 million Swedish kronor Nobel Prize for chemistry. The award was announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on October 9.
“[Lithium-ion batteries] have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the academy said in the announcement of the award. [Electric car] batteries no longer weigh two tons, but 300 kg,” enthused professor Sara Snogerup Linse, a member of the Nobel committee for chemistry. “The ability to store energy from renewable sources — the sun, the wind — opens up for sustainable energy consumption,” she told The Guardian.
Professor Mark Miodownik, a materials expert at University College London, said lithium-ion batteries deserve to be celebrated. “They are one of the most influential pieces of materials science that influence the modern life of everyone on the planet. It is remarkable too that although 30 years old, they have not been eclipsed by a better battery technology even now, which makes you realize what a remarkable discovery they are.”
John Goodenough, Accidental Inventor
In an interview with the Times earlier this year, Goodenough said he didn’t anticipate the impact his work would have. “At the time we developed the battery it was just something to do. I didn’t know what electrical engineers would do with the battery. I really didn’t anticipate cellphones, camcorders, and everything else.”
After the announcement on Wednesday, Goodenough said that he never sought nor expected to win the Nobel Prize. “Life is full of surprises,” he said, joking that at his age the prize “doesn’t make much difference.” Goodenough is 97 years old and still goes to work in his laboratory every day. He said he doesn’t regret not making a fortune from his discovery.
“I didn’t really care too much about the money,” he said. “Everything I’ve ever done, the lawyers end up with all the money.” He said he hoped the technology would continue to evolve to make electric cars more feasible. “We need to find a way to emancipate ourselves from dependence on burning fossil fuels.” Goodenough has said he wants to perfect the solid state lithium ion battery while he is still alive. That quest is one of the things that keeps him going.
Stanley Whittingham’s Discovery
Rechargeable batteries available in the 70s had very low energy density. Some of you may remember early phones that required users to lug around a battery about the size of a Volkswagen. It was thought that lithium might make batteries with greater energy density due to its light weight and willingness to give up a free electron upon demand. But lithium is highly reactive with other elements, which makes working with it difficult.
When OPEC shut off the flow of oil in the 70s, Stanley Whittingham went looking for alternative energy sources and wound up creating the first functional lithium battery. He started with lithium metal in the anode and lithium ions disbursed in titanium disulphide for the cathode. But when his battery was charged multiple times, it had one unfortunate tendency — it was prone to explode. To make it safer, he combined metallic lithium with aluminium in the anode.
John Goodenough was working at the University of Oxford at the time. He replaced the titanium disulphide in the Whittingham’s cathode with cobalt oxide — which made the battery more stable and doubled the output voltage
Akira Yoshino Puts All The Pieces Together
Akiro Yoshino took the process one step further. In 1985, he used the cathode developed by Goodenough and married it to an anode composed of lithium ions and electrons housed within a carbon material called petroleum coke. The result was a lightweight, compact battery that could be safely charged repeatedly. It became the first commercially viable lithium ion battery.
Energy storage research continues in laboratories around the world, looking for lighter, cheaper, more powerful batteries. Someday our grandkids may be amazed to learn the world was once dependent on such “old fashioned” technology. What is cutting edge today could be so yesterday a decade from now. But wherever the trail leads, it began with three researchers who figured out how to make a battery that was good enough to spark — you should pardon the expression — the transition away from burning fossil fuels.
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