Electrifying is most appropriate to describe the emotion of being among the creators of renewable and energy storage systems that we all know and depend upon now. At the VinFuture Prize Awards held at the Hanoi Opera House on December 20, the brilliant minds of professors Martin Green, Stanley Whittingham, Rachid Yazami, and Akira Yoshino with their individual and collective achievements were recognized as pioneers of the clean energy revolution.
As grand prize winners, the four scientists were awarded $3 million each for their discoveries and inventions that revolutionized solar and energy storage technologies.
Then there is Susan Solomon, who stood tall as the recipient of the Special Prize for Female Innovators for her groundbreaking work on environmental protection — she was the “young girl who spotted the hole in the ozone layer.” Solomon led the team that proved the gaping wound in the ozone layer using chemistry, confirming the link between the use of chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion. Her findings moved policymakers to create and sign the historic Montreal Protocol, still the most successful environmental agreement ever forged.
CleanTechnica attended the awards ceremony and post-awards sit-down session called “Dialogue with the VinFuture Winners” on December 21 at the VinUniversity — the education institution of the VinGroup conglomerate’s ecosystem.
The first lithium-ion battery created and developed by Whittingham, Yazami, Yoshino, and the late Prof. John Goodenough unleashed an energy revolution. During the press briefings following the dialogue, the four professors shared stories about the development of the lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery.
“We were looking simply for a way to better store energy. We knew that rechargeable battery energy storage using lithium-ion was the best solution because of its inherent capacity to store and discharge energy,” Prof. Yoshino told journalists at the VinPrize “Dialouge with the VinPrize Winners” press conference.
Professor Stanley Whittingham’s concept of lithium intercalation using titanium disulfide and lithium metal became the theoretical basis for further research for lithium-ion batteries. The first batteries were able to do what they were designed to do, take in a charge quickly, and keep the charge reliable and available. But the first prototypes were also unsafe.
This was followed by Dr. Yazami’s introduction of graphite, as the negative electrode was a crucial step towards a safer and more practical battery design. Replacing lithium metal with carbon significantly improved stability and reduced safety concerns.
Yoshino’s focus on commercial viability was essential in bringing the technology to the real world. His choice of lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode and implementation of safety features like the heat-sensitive membrane paved the way for the first commercially successful lithium-ion battery in 1986 and was commercially produced by Sony in 1991.
For their efforts, the trio of scientists and a fourth member of the team, the late Prof. John Goodenough, were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions to the development of lithium-ion batteries.
This story wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the late Professor John Goodenough. His 1980s discovery of a cobalt-oxide cathode that could operate at higher voltages while remaining stable was crucial for achieving the energy density and safety needed for practical applications. His work optimizing the cathode material by introducing mixed metal oxides significantly improved performance and cycle life. Professor Goodenough passed away only last June 2023.
Together, these four minds birthed a revolution. Lithium-ion batteries power our smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles, and grid storage systems, liberating us from dependence on fossil fuels for our portable and stationary energy needs. The impact is staggering. As of last count, there are over 15 billion mobile devices, and 26 million electric vehicles rely on lithium-ion batteries globally, and the market is expected to reach $88.2 billion by 2027.
Solar power maximized
Imagine capturing more sunlight, squeezing 10% more energy from every ray that strikes a solar cell. That’s the magic behind Professor Martin Green’s Passive Emitter and Rear Contact (PERC) technology. Developed in the 1980s, PERC bypassed a fundamental limitation of traditional solar cells, where metal contacts on the front surface shaded some of the incoming light. His ingenious solution? Moving the contacts to the back and adding a reflective layer, allowing for maximum light absorption and higher energy conversion efficiency.
Early solar cells could only convert from 1 to 5 percent of the light from the sun into energy. Before PERC, advancements in silicon manufacturing and utilization in photovoltaic cells reached up to 15 percent energy efficiency only. PERC moved that up to 25 percent. According to scientists, the maximum efficiency of a solar cell is about 30%.
“Our next goal is to get up to 29%, but currently 25% is as close as we can get to the scientific estimations of energy from solar cells,” Green told students and young scientists from VinUniversity.
The impact of PERC is nothing short of transformative. In just a decade since its mass production in 2012, it has secured a staggering 60% share of the global solar cell market. This means cheaper, more efficient solar panels for homes, businesses, and entire communities, driving down the cost of solar energy and accelerating its adoption worldwide.
PERC’s journey didn’t end there. Green and his team continue to refine the technology, pushing the efficiency boundaries even further. Recent advancements promise an additional 3–5% efficiency boost, further solidifying PERC’s position as the backbone of the clean energy future.
The 2023 VinFuture Awards underscored the power of collaboration in advancing scientific frontiers. These winning projects showcase the boundless potential of diverse minds coming together to tackle global challenges. From sunlight powering our homes to breakthroughs in healthcare and environmental protection, the 2023 VinFuture Prize illuminates a path towards a more sustainable, healthier, and more equitable future for all.
Beyond the Grand Prizes — a healthier earth
Beyond the Grand Prize, three Special Prizes resonated with stories of human impact.
The 2023 VinFuture Prize for Innovators with Outstanding Achievements in Emerging Fields were given to Prof. Daniel Joshua Drucker, Prof. Joel Francis Habener, Prof. Jens Juul Holst, and Assoc. Prof. Svetlana Mojsov.
Their discovery of the role of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) opened doors to novel treatments for diabetes, obesity, and even neurodegenerative diseases. Tens of millions of lives are already touched by this scientific triumph, offering hope for a healthier future for generations to come.
Food security found its champions in Prof. Gurdev Singh Khush, now with the University of California, and Prof. Vo Tong Xuan from Vietnam, who were awarded the Special Prize for Innovators from Developing Countries.
Through their tireless efforts, disease-resistant rice varieties like IR36 and IR64 have transformed agricultural landscapes, nourishing millions in vulnerable regions and paving the way for sustainable food production.
Finally, the Special Prize for Female Innovators recognized the pioneering work of Prof. Susan Solomon, her unwavering dedication to uncovering the link between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion.
Her relentless pursuit of knowledge has safeguarded our planet’s protective shield, protecting human health and ecosystems for generations to come by triggering the Montreal Protocol, the sole global environmental agreement that helped reduce the impact of climate change.
“We are excited to have announced our new VinFuture Prize winners,” declared Professor Sir Richard Friend, VinFuture Prize Council Chair. “They have all made huge advances in science and innovation, with real global impact. The breadth of scope to bring science and innovation to benefit society is reflected in this year’s prizes.”
The 2023 VinFuture Awards exemplify the boundless potential of human ingenuity when driven by the spirit of “Boundless Unity.”
The organizers say that science transcends borders, languages, and cultures, forging collaborations that hold the key to a brighter future. By recognizing and nurturing these partnerships, the VinFuture Prize not only celebrates groundbreaking advancements but also inspires generations to come to build a world where scientific progress benefits all.
Co-written with Lourdes E. Tribdino
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