The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the press conference, the Nobel committee stressed how revolutionary this technology was and how it enables us to enjoy the freedom of portable devices – from mobile phones and laptops to electric cars and spacecraft – that we can simply recharge by plugging into the mains.
The challenges of achieving such technology were significant. Lithium can easily give up one of its electrons, making it perfect as a way to store and carry electricity. The downside is that makes it a very reactive element, so it has to be tamed to work in a battery, which is what the winners did.
Batteries work by having a positive side (cathode) and a negative side (anode). While working on developing methods that could lead to fossil-fuel free energy technology in the 1970s, Dr Whittingham discovered a way to create a good cathode for a lithium battery made of titanium disulfide. This battery had good potential but the anode was made from metallic lithium, which is reactive, making it too explosive to work. This was improved upon in 1980 by Dr Goodenough, who used cobalt oxide as the material to build the cathode. This doubled the voltage of those batteries.
Dr Yoshino focused on the anode. In the previous batteries, it was made of lithium metals, highly reactive and so not very safe. Yoshino created an anode made of petroleum coke, the carbon layers allowed for the presence of lithium ions between them. The ions moved across the batteries as their electrons moved across the circuits powering the device. The advantage is that the whole process was reversible and it could be repeated hundreds of times – meaning the battery could be charged multiple times before its performance started deteriorating. Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.
Yoshino told journalists during the award announcement that the driving force to carry out their research had been simply curiosity.
The committee also pointed out that Dr Goodenough is now the record-holder for the oldest ever Nobel Laureate at 97, just a few months older than the previous record-holder, Dr Arthur Ashkin, who won the Physics Prize last year.
Of the 203 Chemistry Nobel Laureates since 1901, only five have been women. Eighty-nine of those were awarded the prize for work carried out in the US, although only 60 of them were born there. For more fun facts and ore data visualization of the Nobel Prize in chemistry check out Chemistry World.