LI-ION BATTERY INVENTORS: Tech inventors Worthy of a Nobel (Chemistry) Prize

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The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to an invention at the heart of modern life: the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The 2019 Nobel prize in chemistry has been awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are in everything from mobile phones such as iPhones to laptops and electric vehicles, such as Teslas, have revolutionised our lives, and laid the foundation for a fossil-fuel-free society and future of energy. The story of how this battery was made illustrates what it takes to develop an impactful technology that truly makes a difference in peoples lives.

1970s

In the early 1970s, Stanley Whittingham developed the first functional lithium battery. Whittingham is a key figure in the history of the development of lithium batteries, discovering the concept of intercalation electrodes. Exxon manufactured in 1970s Whittingham's rechargeable lithium battery, which was based on a titanium disulfide cathode and a lithium-aluminium anode. However, this rechargeable lithium battery could never be made practical. John Goodenough made it more powerful and useful. 

1980s

In 1980,  John Goodenough and his team, working at Oxford University, figured out that a cobalt oxide cathode would make for a more stable battery. During his time as Head of the Inorganic Chemistry Department at Oxford, Professor Goodenough, along with Koichi Mizushima, Philip C Jones and Philip J Wiseman, identified the cathode material that enabled the development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. He took the basic battery design invented by Wittingham and invented a new cathode that greatly stabilized the structure and improved its capacity. This breakthrough ushered in the age of portable electronic devices such as laptops and smartphones.

In 1985, Akira Yoshino created a safer battery that could be recharged hundreds of times - the first viable lithium-ion battery. Yoshino, a 71-year-old honorary fellow with Asahi Kasei Corp. and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, is credited as one of the pioneers in developing the widely used power source, which has become indispensable for cellphones and other electronic devices today. Together with a group of researchers, he managed to eliminate the metallic lithium from the anode. 

He developed an anode made of petroleum coke containing lithium ions. Yoshino’s group learned to use more complicated carbon-based materials in electrodes that’d still let lithium ions nestle inside and flow through the battery. Yoshino also developed a way to test the batteries to show that, unlike earlier versions, they wouldn’t catch fire—at least not as easily as the early versions. 

1991

In 1991, the lithium-ion batteries were launched commercially. Because they were lighter and more powerful than other kinds of rechargeable batteries, they made it possible to develop more powerful and portable electronic devices – such as mobile phones. 

Although they are widely used Li-ion batteries still have their problems. They can still cause a fire if there are problems with the software that controls them or damage to their outer case. They were one of the reasons for a voluntary recall of about 2.5 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones.

The value of this technology is massive. One estimate puts the size of the world market at $36 billion, with the possibility of hitting almost $110 billion by 2026.

The technology is still be being improved. Laboratories around the world are busy experimenting with technologies that could replace lithium-ion batteries, as well as with further developments to make existing batteries safer, more sustainable or longer-lasting. The development of the Li-ion batteries should serve as a lesson to innovators that the innovation process takes time and it also needs to be impactful to society. The trio who have now been recognised with the Nobel Prize is a fine example to innovators today.


Kay Ann