STOCKHOLM (AP) — If you’re reading this on a cellphone or laptop computer, you might thank this year’s three winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on lithium-ion batteries.
The prize announced on Oct. 9 went to John B. Goodenough, 97, an American engineering professor at the University of Texas; Akira Yoshino, 71, of chemicals company Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University in Japan; and M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
The three scientists were honored for a truly transformative technology that has permeated billions of lives across the planet, including anyone who uses cellphones, computers, pacemakers, electric cars and beyond.
Each man had unique breakthroughs that cumulatively laid the foundation for the development of a commercial rechargeable battery to replace alkaline batteries containing lead, nickel or zinc that had their origins in the 19th century.
In his work, Whittingham harnessed the enormous tendency of lithium—the lightest metal—to give away its electrons to make a battery capable of generating just over two volts. Lithium, of all the elements, “is the one that most willingly releases electrons,” the committee said.
By 1980, building on Whittingham’s work, Goodenough had doubled the capacity of the battery to four volts by using cobalt oxide in the cathode—one of two electrodes, along with the anode, that make up the ends of a battery.
But that battery remained too explosive for general commercial use. That’s where Yoshino’s work in the 1980s came in. He eliminated the volatile pure lithium from the battery, and instead opted for lithium ions that are safer.
Yoshino substituted petroleum coke, a carbon material, in the battery’s anode. This step paved the way for the first lightweight, safe, durable and rechargeable commercial batteries to be built and enter the market in 1991.
“We have gained access to a technical revolution,” said Sara Snogerup Linse of the Nobel committee for chemistry, alluding to the environmental benefits of the discoveries. “The ability to store energy from renewable sources—the sun, the wind—opens up for sustainable energy consumption.”
The trio will share a 9-million kronor ($918,000) cash award. Their gold medals and diplomas will be conferred in Stockholm on Dec. 10—the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
Yoshino said lithium-ion batteries could have greater application in the ocean and space, but that further research and development are needed to adapt them to other gadgets and purposes. “Lithium-ion itself is still full of unknowns,” he said.
The prize turned out to be a bit of a family affair among the researchers: Yoshino said he visits Goodenough nearly every year in Texas.
“For him, I’m like his son,” the Japanese laureate said. “He takes very good care of me.”
Goodenough, in his own way, seemed to return the favor, telling reporters in London that in all of his 97 years: “What am I most proud of? I don’t know, I would say all my friends.”