The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA) 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.
By winning this year’s prize, Goodenough broke the record for the oldest Nobel Laureate, setting the record at 97 years old. The record was last broken back in 2018, when American scientist Arthur Ashkin won half of the prize in 2018 at the age of 96 years old.
Lithium-ion batteries are used globally to power portable electronics that we use in our daily life for work, study, and entertainment. Lithium-ion batteries have also enabled the development of long-range electric cars and the storage of energy from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power.
Scientists argue that lithium-ion batteries deserve to win the prize as it is one of the most important discoveries that have greatly impacted human civilization over the past two decades.
Foundation of the lithium-ion battery was laid during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991.
According to the academy’s press release, Stanley Whittingham has been developing methods that could lead to fossil fuel-free energy technologies. He started to research superconductors and discovered an extremely energy-rich material, which he used to create an innovative cathode in a lithium battery. This was made from titanium disulphide which, at a molecular level, contains spaces that can house – intercalate – lithium ions.
The battery’s anode was partially made from metallic lithium, which has a strong drive to release electrons. This resulted in a battery that literally had great potential, just over two volts. However, metallic lithium is reactive, and the battery was too explosive to be viable.
John Goodenough predicted that the cathode would have even greater potential if it was made using a metal oxide instead of a metal sulphide. In 1980 he demonstrated that cobalt oxide with intercalated lithium ions can produce as much as four volts. This was an important breakthrough and would lead to much more powerful batteries.
With Goodenough’s cathode as a basis, Akira Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. Rather than using reactive lithium in the anode, he used petroleum coke, a carbon material that, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, can intercalate lithium ions.
Their work resulted in producing a lightweight, hardwearing battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated. The major breakthrough behind this kind of battery is that its no longer based on chemical reactions that break down the electrodes, but upon lithium ions flowing back and forth between the anode and cathode.