This lithium-ion battery, which powers electric cars, is one of many commercial products made possible by research for this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Akio Kon / Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Science News StaffOct. 9, 2019, 6:20 am
You probably have evidence of a Nobel Prize in your pocket. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to the pioneers of the lithium-ion battery, an invention that has become ubiquitous in the wireless electronics that power modern life: your phone, your laptop, and sometimes even your car. Lithium-ion batteries are lighter and more compact than yesterday’s lead and nickel-cadmium batteries, and with more tinkering, could provide a way to store energy for households, airplanes, and even the power grid.
The $ 900,000 award is shared between three scientists: Stanley Whittingham of the State University of New York at Binghamton, John Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, and Akira Yoshino of the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo.
“Lithium-ion batteries have an enormous impact on our society,” said Yang Shao-Horn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “I’m excited.”
Like all liquid ion batteries, lithium ion batteries contain two electrodes – an anode and a cathode – separated by a liquid electrolyte that allows the ions to move back and forth. During discharge, supplies of lithium atoms at the anode release electrons to generate a current for an external circuit. The resulting positively charged lithium ions flow into the electrolyte while electrons return from their work to the cathode, where they are typically soaked up by metal oxide materials. The lithium ions sneak up to the metal atoms at the cathode. The charging reverses the flow, forcing the lithium ions to break with the metal atoms and return to the anode.
In the 1970s Whittingham was one of the first to recognize the potential of lithium, an elemental metal that has a “loose” electron in its outermost atomic shell and gives it up easily. But that also makes lithium highly reactive: it ignites – and sometimes explodes – if it is even exposed to water in the air. Whittingham worked at Exxon and discovered that titanium disulfide would work well as a cathode: lithium ions could embed themselves in its layered structure. In 1976 Whittingham demonstrated a working 2.5 volt battery. But as it went through several charge cycles, whiskey tendrils or dendrites of lithium grew over the electrolyte. When they reached the cathode, the battery was short-circuited – which sometimes led to fires.
Goodenough, then at Oxford University in Great Britain, took up the assignment. He realized that the cathode could accept more returning electrons if it were made of a metal oxide instead of a metal sulfide. These compounds were also layered and did not significantly expand or contract upon uptake or release of lithium ions. He found cobalt oxide worked well and published results in 1980 for a 4 volt battery almost twice as powerful as Whittingham’s.
Researchers in Japan were looking for batteries that could power shrinking wireless devices. (Sony’s Walkman debuted in 1979.) Yoshino made a huge contribution: He found a way to create an anode that is not pure lithium and is prone to growing dendrites. After trying different materials, he found that he could embed the lithium ions in layers of carbon in petroleum coke, a bio-product made by the oil industry. Yoshino’s battery was as good as Goodenough, but far safer and able to withstand hundreds of charge cycles. In 1991, a Japanese company began selling the first commercial lithium-ion batteries.
The award winners’ work “gave us access to a technological revolution: truly portable electronics,” said Sara Snogerup Linse from Lund University in Sweden.
97-year-old Goodenough is the oldest Nobel Prize winner of all time. He was traveling when he found out about the price. When asked during a press conference in London about his return to his laboratory in Texas, he said, “I hope you keep me busy.”
For years researchers had wondered if and when the technology would win the most famous award in science. Wittingham told Science today, “It was a surprise. To some extent, I thought they’d forgotten us. “
Indeed, Shao-Horn called the honor “overdue”. She added: “This field is not ready yet. We face many other challenges. ”
The researchers are continuing to work on the chemical recipes for the anode, cathode and electrolyte to increase battery performance and durability. Nowadays, lithium ions are typically held in a graphite anode framework, but some researchers are working on silicon anodes that can hold far more lithium ions. Others study different cathode materials. Sulfur is promising because it is cheaper than metal oxides and can hold more electrons – if only researchers can prevent the sulfur from reacting with the lithium ions. Lithium-air batteries, which rely on ambient oxygen to oxidize the lithium at the cathode, are another promising solution.
If scientists strike the right balance between capacity, cost, size, and weight, some think that these future types of lithium batteries could lay the foundation for a green grid that will provide the energy storage to absorb solar and wind power, if they are renewable Sources peak – and release their energy when night falls and the wind subsides. “I think this will probably be the biggest contributor to the environmental sustainability problem,” Yoshino said at a press conference today.
Today’s announcement means that all nine winners in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine this year will be men, exacerbating an already large gender gap in the world’s most prestigious science awards. Of the 616 Nobel Prize winners in the three areas since 1901, only 20 (3.25%) went to women. (The inequality is even greater when the share of prize winners in each Nobel Prize is taken into account.) The gap is increasingly criticized. A statistical analysis published in May found that women are left behind not because they do less well, but because of bias.
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X. Li et al., “Exceptional Oxygen Evolution Reactivities to CaCoO3 and SrCoO3,” Science Advances 58 (August 09, 2019)
J. Suntivich et al., “A perovskite oxide optimized for oxygen evolution catalysis from molecular orbital principles”, Science 3346061 (December 9, 2011)
Y.-H. Huang et al., “Double Perovskites as Anode Materials for Solid Oxide Fuel Cells,” Science 3125771 (April 14, 2006)
MS Whittingham, “Electrical Energy Storage and Intercalation Chemistry”, Science 1924244 (June 11, 1976)
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RF Service, “New generation of lithium-ion batteries could hold more charge – without catching fire”, Science (May 8, 2019)
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J. Alper, “The Battery: Still Not an Endfall,” Science 2965571 (May 17, 2002)