The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries.
“This is a highly charged story with tremendous potential,” said committee member Olof Ramstrom, a professor of chemistry at Linnaeus University. These batteries are increasingly used to store power from sources that fluctuate, such as solar and wind energy.
The scientists tamed the element lithium — a soft, silver-white metal that first formed minutes after the Big Bang, and that is also created when cosmic rays strike interstellar gas. Pure lithium is so reactive that it must be kept in oil. The element fizzes and belches gas when it touches water. That reactivity, packed into a small volume, gives lithium its “enormously attractive” properties, Ramstrom said.
Whittingham, born in the United Kingdom and a professor at Binghamton University in New York, was recruited to work at Exxon in the 1970s. While investigating materials able to hold particles in atom-size gaps, he discovered that titanium disulfide houses lithium ions. 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. German-born Goodenough, a 97-year-old engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the oldest person to receive a Nobel Prize. He improved the batteries in 1980 by swapping out titanium disulfide, in the cathode end of the batteries, for cobalt oxide.
Batteries doubled their energy potential because of the cobalt oxide — an insight “that was really outside the box at the time,” said Bonnie A. Charpentier, president of the American Chemical Society.
Yoshino, of Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, developed the first commercial lithium-ion battery five years later when he made another swap: This time, exchanging reactive lithium in the anode for a carbon-based material, petroleum coke. (Yoshino’s removal of pure lithium reduced the risk of explosions; his team dropped iron balls on the batteries to demonstrate they wouldn’t blow up.) He suffused that coke with electrons, whose negative charges lured the positive lithium ions out of the cobalt cathode. When the battery was turned on, the ions and electrons flowed back to the cathode.
As these particles shuttled from end to end, unlike in traditional batteries, they did not chemically react. Together, these discoveries produced a lightweight battery that can recharge hundreds of times without faltering, the committee said.
“The beauty of it is they built on each other’s work to solve problems that really needed solving,” Charpentier said.
In corners of the world that lack electrical infrastructure, she said, people can now access the Internet through mobile phones charged by small solar panels — technologies with lithium batteries at their hearts. “It truly is a life-changing invention for many people,” Charpentier said. “This is making fundamental change all over the world to allow access to electrical power.”
Researchers are working to refine rechargeable batteries, using new materials to improve their capacity and efficiency. “Climate change is a very, very serious issue for humankind,” said Yoshino, who phoned in to the conference in Sweden. Batteries able to store power from renewable sources lessen dependence on fossil fuels.
“We’re all very happy” the Nobel committee recognized a practical technology, Whittingham said from Ulm, Germany, where the scientist was at a conference to discuss automotive battery development. “It’s a very good trio,” he said. “We complemented each other very well.”
“Lithium batteries have impacted the lives of almost everyone in the world,” Whittingham said. He’s studying ways to make them cheaper and more powerful to tackle climate change. “I’m still working on batteries.”
The recipients will evenly split a monetary award of about $900,000 and receive gold medals large enough to arouse the suspicions of airport security.
“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.”
Of the more than 600 Nobel Prize medals awarded in science, 20 have gone to women. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tweaked the award process in 2019 to encourage more diversity; this boosted the number of nominated female scientists, the academy’s secretary general recently told Nature. Despite this, the 2019 science laureates are all men.