Many times, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded for accomplishments that take quite a lot of explaining, like “palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis” or “the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.” But this year's award is for something that almost everyone on Earth knows a little something about: “the development of lithium-ion batteries.”
The award, announced yesterday, is a three-way split between John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York, and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan.
Lithium-ion batteries are the cornerstone of the technological revolution of the last few decades. The long-lasting, rechargeable batteries are what allow cell phones, laptop computers and other devices to exist. They can be scaled up to power a car or a home. They're even being used in renewable energy. They are also capable of being miniaturized and used in devices like implanted pacemakers.
“Lithium-ion batteries are a great example of how chemistry can transform people’s lives,” Bonnie Charpentier, president of the American Chemical Society tells reporters Knvul Sheikh, Brian X. Chen and Ivan Penn at The New York Times. “It’s wonderful to see this work recognized by the Nobel Prize.”
Lithium-ion batteries are powered by flows of lithium ions crossing from one material to another. When the battery is in use, positively-charged lithium ions pass from an anode to a cathode, releasing a stream of electrons along the way that form an electric current. When the battery is being recharged, lithium ions flow in the opposite direction, resetting the battery to do it all over again.
According to a Nobel press release, the origin of the battery begins during the oil crisis of the 1970s. The resulting price increases and gasoline shortages across the United States spurred research into alternative energy and energy conservation. It also spurred Whittingham to research superconductors. Along the way, he discovered an energy-rich material called titanium disulphide that had space at the molecular level to house lithium ions. He created a battery in which part of the anode was made of metallic lithium. The idea worked, but Whittingham’s version of the battery was pretty unstable, and had a tendency to explode after extended use.
Still, it was a big advance over the acid-based batteries of the day. “The big advantage of this technology was that lithium-ion stored about 10 times as much energy as lead-acid or 5 times as much as nickel-cadmium,” Whittingham tells the Times. They were also much lighter. “So there was a huge incentive to move to lithium-ion.”
In 1980, Goodenough refined the concept, systematically searching for alternatives to the titanium disulphide. He found that cobalt oxide could do the same job and produce as much as four volts, more than double the previous version of the battery. The, in 1985, Yoshino replaced the metallic lithium in the battery with petroleum coke layered with lithium ions, making a safer battery. In 1991, the concept was stable enough for commercialization, and Sony released the first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
Since then, they have become even more efficient. That’s not something the battery's developers ever really anticipated. “At the time we developed the battery, it was just something to do,” Goodenough—who at 97, is the oldest laureate to ever receive a Nobel Prize—tells Nicola Davis and Hannah Devlin at The Guardian. “I didn’t know what electrical engineers would do with the battery. I really didn’t anticipate cellphones, camcorders and everything else.”
The technology is continuing to power the future and will be critical to even out the flow of power in the renewable energy grid, which only produces power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. “What’s exciting about lithium-ion technology is it has the power to unlock the sun 24-7 to really help renewable energy power our future in a way that we haven’t been able to capture until now,” Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the industry group California Solar and Storage Association, tells the Times.
While the batteries will continue to improve and drive society in the near future, there are some problems with the technology. The need for lithium is spiking, and will continue to do so as more battery-poerwed cars and storage units hit the market. Lithium mining in places like Tibet and dry regions of South America is a dirty business, requiring millions of gallons of water, reports Amit Katwala at Wired. Poorly run mines can also contaminate local water supplies. Cobalt is also in short supply, and mining of that metal in places like the Congo Basin is driving environmental destruction, child labor, and pollution.
Recycling the batteries and removing these increasingly precious metals is also costly and sometimes dangerous.
Goodenough, for one, is looking beyond lithium-ion, and in 2017 unveiled a new type of battery three times as powerful as lithium-ion that charges faster and lasts longer. Most importantly, it’s noncombustible and is works in a solid state, meaning it has no liquid elements like lithium-ion batteries. It can also use multiple alkali-metals including lithium but also sodium or potassium, which are much cheaper and easier to produce.
Even if new batteries do supersede lithium-ion, there’s no doubt that its impact on the modern world is incalculable and affects the lives of billions of people every day. The prize will be awarded on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.