Nobel Prize in Chemistry Honors Work on Lithium-Ion Batteries

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three scientists who developed lithium-ion batteries, the energy storage systems that have revolutionized portable electronics. Larger examples of the batteries have given rise to electric cars that can be driven on long trips, while the miniaturized versions are used in lifesaving medical devices like cardiac defibrillators.

John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino will share the prize, which is worth about $900,000.

“Lithium-ion batteries are a great example of how chemistry can transform peoples’ lives,” said Bonnie Charpentier, president of the American Chemical Society. “It’s wonderful to see this work recognized by the Nobel Prize.”

The three researchers’ work in the 1970s and 80s led to the creation of powerful, lightweight and rechargeable batteries that might be powering the smartphone or laptop computer that you’re using to read this article today. Lithium-ion batteries are also used in billions of cameras and power tools. Astronauts use them on the International Space Station, and the batteries have improved the prospects of renewable energy. Reducing fossil fuel energy sources can contribute to lessening the impact of climate change.

“Development of these batteries is a huge step forward, so we that we can really store solar and wind energy,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, the chairwoman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

John B. Goodenough, 97, is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. With the award he becomes the oldest Nobel Prize winner, but is still active in research.

M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, is a professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Akira Yoshino, 71, is an honorary fellow for the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan. He was previously awarded the Japan Prize for his work on lithium-ion batteries.

The first true battery was invented in 1800 by Alessandro Volta. He stacked discs made of copper and zinc, and linked them with a cloth soaked in salty water. When wires were connected to discs on either end, the battery produced a stable current. In subsequent decades, versions of these batteries powered telegraphs and other devices.

The next iteration of the battery, made from lead-acid, could be recharged, and has been used to start gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles since the 1850s. They were reliable even though the batteries were bulky and heavy. Nickel-cadmium batteries, which were less efficient, were invented in 1899, and served as another option for portable energy storage.

For many years, few researchers looked into advancing battery technology because there was no urgent need. But the Arab oil embargo of 1973 made many scientists realize the extent of society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Dr. Whittingham, who was working for Exxon at the time, began searching for improved ways to store energy from renewable sources and power electric cars.

He discovered that titanium disulfide, not previously used in batteries, was an extremely energy-rich material that could be used in a battery for its positive electrode, or cathode — think of the side of your battery with the plus sign.

For the negative electrode in his battery — the side with the minus sign — Dr. Whittingham decided to test lithium, which is the lightest metal and releases electrons easily. This resulted in the first functional lithium battery.

Unfortunately, Dr. Whittingham’s new battery had a problem. When it was repeatedly charged, thin strands of metallic lithium would grow out from the negative electrode. Sometimes, the strands would grow long enough that they reached the cathode and short-circuited the battery, and could cause an explosion.

Dr. Goodenough, then at Oxford, discovered that the cathode would have greater potential if it were made with a different material and showed that cobalt oxide, which had layers to hold pockets of lithium ions, could produce a higher voltage.

Dr. Yoshino then eliminated pure lithium from the battery, instead using only lithium ions, which are safer. He created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery for Asahi Kasei Corporation in Japan in 1985, which then started selling the technology in 1991, paving the way for a revolution in portable devices.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Dr. Yoshino said the news was “amazing” and “surprising.” He said that “curiosity” had been the driving force behind his work, but added that he was pleased that his contributions could help fight climate change.

“Climate change is a very serious issue for humankind,” he said, calling lithium-ion batteries “suitable for a sustainable society.”

The prize last year went to Frances H. Arnold and George P. Smith, both of the United States and Gregory P. Winter of England, for work that tapped the power of evolutionary biology to design molecules with a range of practical uses, such as new drugs, more efficient and less toxic reactions in the manufacture of chemicals, and plant-derived fuels to replace oil, gas and coal extracted from the ground.

Dr. Arnold was only the fifth woman to win the prize.

  • The prize for medicine and physiology was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their work in discovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.

  • The prize for physics went to three scientists who transformed our view of the cosmos: James Peebles shared half of the prize for theories that explained how the universe swirled into galaxies and everything we see in the night sky, and much that we cannot see. Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were jointly recognized for the other half of the prize for their discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star in our galaxy.