Three pioneers of the lithium-ion battery revolution – John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino – have been made Nobel laureates for developments that sparked a portable tech revolution.
The three of them are responsible for the development of the now-ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.
The development of this rechargeable battery has laid the foundation that allows all wireless electronics, from mobile phones and laptops, to work.
Lithium-ion batteries also mark the first step away from a fossil-fuel-free world. They are used for everything from powering electric cars to storing energy from renewable sources
What is Lithum?
It is rare that a single element gets to play a central role in any drama. The story of 2019’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry though has lithium as its central character.
Lithium is an ancient metal. Most lithium today was created during the first minutes of the Big Bang.
However, it took until 1817 for humanity to became aware of it. Swedish chemists Johan August Arfwedson and Jöns Jacob Berzelius purified lithium ions (in the form of a salt) out of a mineral sample from Utö Mine, in the Stockholm archipelago.
While pure Lithium has a tendency to set off fire-alarms (it is highly reactive and must be stored in oil to stop it reacting with air) lithium-ions are a type of salt and are more stable.
The element was named after the Greek word for stone, lithos. This ‘heavy’ name is a bit misleading. Lithium is the lightest solid element. This is what makes it perfect for the tiny mobile phones we now carry around.
What is a lithium-ion battery?
It took more than a hundred years from its discovery by Arfwedson and Berzelius to be used a battery.
In the 1970s, our first Nobel winner, Stanley Whittingham, was able to use Lithiums reactivity to develop the first functional lithium battery. He did this by making use of Lithiums chemical need to release its outer electron.
This need comes from Lithium only having one electron in its outer electron shell. This outer electron then has a strong drive to leave lithium for another atom. It is when this happens that a positively charged – and more stable – lithium-ion is formed.
John Goodenough built on Whittingham work in the 1980’s. His research doubled the battery’s potential and created a more powerful useful battery.
However, it still relied on pure, highly reactive lithium. In 1985 the real-world breakthrough in Lithium battery tech came when Akira Yoshino succeeded in creating a battery from only lithium ions.
This battery new battery was safer and more workable. it enabled the development of laptops, mobile phones, electric cars and storage arrays from renewable technology.
What next for lithium-ion battery tech?
While mobile and computer technology has been the main driver of improving lithium-ion battery technology the boom in electric vehicles in the last decade and a desperate need to move away from fossil fuels lead to a boom in battery research.
You can find out more about all three Nobel laureates, and the read more about the discovery and development of the lithium-ion battery at nobelprize.org