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Nobel prize in chemistry goes to developers of lithium-ion batteries
The 2019 Nobel prize in Chemistry has been awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are found in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric cars. They have revolutionised our lives, and laid the foundation for a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
“We can see an enormous, dramatic effect on society because of this fantastic battery,” said Olof Ramström, a member of the Nobel Committee.
During the oil crisis in the 1970s, Stanley Whittingham, now at Binghamton University in the US, developed the first ever lithium battery. The positive electrode, or cathode, consisted of titanium disulphide containing lithium ions. Lithium is the lightest metal, so using lithium ions makes batteries lighter.
However, the negative electrode, or anode, consisted partly of metallic lithium, which is highly reactive. As the battery was recharged, slivers of metallic lithium grew out from the anode. When they touched the cathode they short-circuited the battery, sometimes resulting in an explosion.
John Goodenough, now at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted that replacing the titanium disulphide cathode with a metal oxide would make it more powerful. In 1980, he created a battery in which the lithium ions were contained in a cathode of cobalt oxide. This doubled the voltage, or power, of the battery, but did not solve the safety issue.
Akira Yoshino of the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo, Japan, managed to eliminate the metallic lithium from the anode. He developed an anode made of petroleum coke containing lithium ions. In 1985, Yoshino created a safer battery that could be recharged hundreds of times – the first viable lithium-ion battery.
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.
The technology is still being improved. Modern lithium-ion batteries have iron phosphate cathodes developed by Goodenough, which is more environmentally friendly than cobalt oxide.