John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of lightweight lithium-ion batteries, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Wednesday in Stockholm.
"Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives and are used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles," the Nobel Prize committee said in a statement following the announcement.
"Through their work, this year's Chemistry laureates have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society." The trio were awarded the prize of 9 million Swedish crowns ($913,000).
Work that won
Batteries are used in all manners of electronic gadgets, so might seem like a reasonably recent invention, but that is not the case. Batteries actually have been with us for a long time. In 1938 the Director of the Baghdad Museum found what is now referred to as the "Baghdad Battery" in the basement of the museum. Analysis dated it at around 250BC and of Mesopotamian origin.
With the advance of new technologies, batteries developed to the form we know today. It necessitated the invention of more compact, higher capacity, safe, rechargeable batteries.
Lithium is one of the lightest elements in the periodic table and it has one of the largest electrochemical potentials, therefore this combination produces some of the highest possible voltages in the most compact and lightest volumes.
This is the basis for the lithium-ion battery. In this new battery, lithium is combined with a transition metal – such as cobalt, nickel, manganese or iron – and oxygen to form the cathode. During recharging when a voltage is applied, the positively charged lithium ion from the cathode migrates to the graphite anode and becomes lithium metal.
Because lithium has a strong electrochemical driving force to be oxidised if allowed, it migrates back to the cathode to become a Li+ ion again and gives up its electron back to the cobalt ion. The movement of electrons in the circuit gives us a current that we can use.
The men behind the research
The three laureates each played a critical role in the development of lithium ion batteries. In the early 1970s, Stanley Whittingham used lithium's enormous drive to release its outer electron when he developed the first functional lithium battery.
John Goodenough doubled the lithium battery's potential, creating the right conditions for a vastly more powerful and useful battery. 97 years of age, he is also the newest old person ever to get the Nobel Prize. Last year Arthur Ashkin (at 96) was the oldest. In a recent interview, he said, "At the time we developed the battery it was just something to do. I didn't know what electrical engineers would do with the battery. I really didn't anticipate cellphones, camcorders and everything else."
Akira Yoshino succeeded in eliminating pure lithium from the battery, instead basing it wholly on lithium ions, which are safer than pure lithium. This made the battery workable in practice. He was asked whether he carried out the research to help make more environment friendly technologies or to make money. "Curiosity was the main driving force," said Yoshino.