Forging the path to a rechargeable world today earned three scientists the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Alessandro Volta demonstrated the first electric battery in 1800. Since then, scientists have been working to build better ones. Today’s winners were honored for pioneering the lithium-ion battery. Lightweight and rechargeable, these batteries can be found in everything from portable electronics to electric cars and bicycles. They also provide a way to store energy from renewable energy sources (such as sunlight and wind).
The winners include John B. Goodenough at the University of Texas at Austin. At 97, he is the oldest person to ever receive a Nobel. The other winners are M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino. Whittingham works at Binghamton University in New York. Yoshiro works in Japan at Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and Meijo University in Nagoya.
All three will receive a medal and together split the prize of 9 million Swedish kronor (about $900,000).
Chemist Olof Ramström works at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He also is a member of the 2019 Nobel Committee for chemistry. He spoke during this morning’s announcement of the prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden. “This battery has had a dramatic impact on our society,” he said. “It’s clear that the discoveries of our three laureates really made this possible.”
The path to a better battery
Batteries store electrical energy as chemical energy. All have three main parts. These start with two electrodes: an anode (AN-oad), or negative electrode, and cathode (KATH-oad), or positive one. Separating the two is an electrolyte. This chemical helps electrically charged ions move inside the battery.
Chemical reactions in the anode release electrons. They then travel along a circuit to the cathode. This forms a current.
In the 1970s, Whittingham began experimenting with lithium for his anode. It did not weigh much and readily released electrons and lithium ions. To make a rechargeable battery, he chose titanium disulfide for the cathode. Made of many layers, that cathode stored lithium ions released from the anode. While working with the energy company Exxon, Whittingham used this design for the first lithium battery. It could supply 2 volts.
Goodenough sought to improve on Whittingham’s design over the next decade. His cathode would be made from cobalt oxide. It could sandwich even more ions within its layers. Goodenough’s innovation doubled voltage to 4 volts. (That’s about what it takes to power a modern smartphone.)
In 1985, Yoshino explored creating an anode from a by-product of oil production. Known as petroleum coke, it was finely layered. And while not made of lithium, it could store lithium ions when charged. Yoshino paired it with Goodenough’s cathode. The result was a safer, more durable, 4-volt rechargeable battery. That design was used for the first lithium-ion batteries to hit store shelves. That was in 1991.
These early devices offered about twice as much energy as the next best batteries. What’s more, they were not one-and-done batteries. These could be drawn down and then recharged hundreds of times before their performance suffered.
Appreciation for the scientists and their work
The Nobel Prize announcement is “really thrilling for the battery community,” says Kelsey Hatzell. She works at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Stan and Akira and John’s work is so significant.… You can’t imagine going through your daily life without using half a dozen different devices that use lithium-ion batteries.”
At a news conference, Goodenough said “I’m extremely happy that my work has helped people’s ability to communicate.” When asked if he had expected to win, Goodenough replied: “I didn’t expect anything!” He said he’d donate his share of the winnings “to my university to support people who work there.”
Goodenough may not have expected to win, but others had long considered him a shoo-in. “People in the electrochemistry field … have put him number one on our [Nobel prediction] lists for years and years and years and years,” says Amanda Morris. She’s a chemist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
“John is an amazing scientist, with incredible intuition, and a great person,” adds Yang Shao-Horn. She’s a chemist and engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. She notes that Goodenough “has inspired generations of scientists and engineers with his positive attitude, honesty and boundless curiosity.”
Lithium-ion batteries now perform much better than those in 1991. Over the past two decades or more, researchers have been working very hard. And it’s paid off. The energy available from these batteries “has doubled — even tripled, in some cases, and the cycle life has improved greatly,” says Shao-Horn. Today, you can recharge these batteries thousands of times. They also have gotten safer and less costly.
Bonnie Charpentier is president of the American Chemical Society. “This is the international year of the periodic table of elements,” she notes. “So it’s fun to have a Nobel Prize that actually names an element.”
anode The negative terminal of a battery, and the positively charged electrode in an electrolytic cell. It attracts negatively charged particles. The anode is the source of electrons for use outside the battery when it discharges.
battery A device that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy.
cathode The positive terminal of a battery, and the negatively charged electrode in an electrolytic cell. It attracts positively charged particles. During discharge, the cathode attracts electrons from outside the battery.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
chemical reaction A process that involves the rearrangement of the molecules or structure of a substance, as opposed to a change in physical form (as from a solid to a gas).
chemistry The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.
circuit A network that transmits electrical signals. In the body, nerve cells create circuits that relay electrical signals to the brain. In electronics, wires typically route those signals to activate some mechanical, computational or other function.
current A fluid — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction. (in electricity) The flow of electricity or the amount of charge moving through some material over a particular period of time.
disulfide A pair of sulfur atoms linked together.
electrode A device that conducts electricity and is used to make contact with non-metal part of an electrical circuit, or that contacts something through which an electrical signal moves. (in electronics) Part of a semiconductor device (such as a transistor) that either releases or collects electrons or holes, or that can control their movement.
electrolyte A non-metallic liquid or solid that conducts ions — electrically charged atoms or molecules — to carry electrical charges. (Certain minerals in blood or other bodily fluids can serve as the ions that move to carry a charge.) Electrolytes also can serve as the ions that move positive charges within a battery.
electron A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.
electronics Devices that are powered by electricity but whose properties are controlled by the semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.
element A building block of some larger structure. (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
generation A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. The term also is sometimes extended to year classes of other animals or to types of inanimate objects (such as electronics or automobiles).
green (in chemistry and environmental science) An adjective to describe products and processes that will pose little or no harm to living things or the environment.
innovation (v. to innovate; adj. innovative) An adaptation or improvement to an existing idea, process or product that is new, clever, more effective or more practical.
intuition The ability to understand some issue — or feel one confidently knows something — without having to consciously analyze it. Some people refer to it as a “gut feeling” that something is true. In fact, it’s based on an unconscious analysis of past experiences that may relate to the issue.
ion (adj. ionized) An atom or molecule with an electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons. An ionized gas, or plasma, is where all of the electrons have been separated from their parent atoms.
lithium A soft, silvery metallic element. It’s the lightest of all metals and very reactive. It is used in batteries and ceramics.
Nobel prize A prestigious award named after Alfred Nobel. Best known as the inventor of dynamite, Nobel was a wealthy man when he died on December 10, 1896. In his will, Nobel left much of his fortune to create prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Winners receive a medal and large cash award.
petroleum A thick flammable liquid mixture of hydrocarbons. Petroleum is a fossil fuel mainly found beneath the Earth’s surface. It is the source of the chemicals used to make gasoline, lubricating oils, plastics and many other products.
renewable energy Energy from a source that is not depleted by use, such as hydropower (water), wind power or solar power.
smartphone A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
voltage A force associated with an electric current that is measured in units known as volts. Power companies use high-voltage to move electric power over long distances.
Meeting: L. Stillings. Lithium Resources in Continental Brines, Pegmatites, and Lacustrine Sediments. American Geophysical Union meeting, Washington, D.C., December 10, 2018.
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Journal: S. Feng et al. Hot lithium-oxygen batteries charge ahead. Science. Vol. 361, August 24, 2018, p. 758. doi: 10.1126/science.aau4792.
Journal: L. Kavanagh et al. Global lithium sources--industrial use and future in the Electric Vehicle Industry: A Review. Resources. Vol. 7, p. 57, September 17, 2018. doi: 10.3390/resources7030057.