2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to the fathers of the fossil-free era
This years’ Nobel Prizes have just been awarded and the chemistry prize recognizes the three men who developed the lithium-ion battery. It’s a technology that’s taken for granted by many of us, but this rechargeable, powerful, compact and lightweight battery has made the technology we take for granted possible. It’s why mobile phones are so lightweight and why you can use your laptop for a day without plugging it in. But the impact of this technology goes beyond consumer convenience.
The lithium-ion battery is central to our move away from fossil-fuels. These are the batteries that are powering electric cars, enabling them to travel for hundreds of miles between charges. They also solve a major issue with renewable energy – storage. Lithium-ion batteries are used to store the energy generated from wind and solar power, making these technologies a viable alternative to fossil-fuels. And it is this ‘greatest benefit to humankind’ that has resulted in the Nobel Prize for John Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino.
From oil crisis to revolutionary technology
The oil crisis of the 1970s had huge economic and political impact, but it also had an effect on innovation. Faced with the threat of running out of oil, large companies started funding blue-sky research into oil-free technologies to power vehicles. And it was in this environment that Stanley Whittingham (working for Exxon) made his discovery. An academic who had studied how material properties were affected when ions are caught up within the material, Whittingham investigated how potassium ions affected the conductivity of tantalum disulphide. He found that the resulting material had an unusually high energy density, and the material’s voltage was a couple of volts – significantly better than any batteries available at the time.
Realising he was onto something, Whittingham replaced the heavy tantalum with the lighter titanium and chose lithium at the anode as the material that gives up electrons the easiest.
But the development of the battery hit some setbacks. After charging several times, thin whiskers of lithium grew from the anode. These caused short circuits in the battery and it exploded. This issue was overcome to some extent, but this, and a drop in oil price, stopped the research.