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Nobel prize honors breakthroughs on lithium-ion batteries

Stanley Whittingham, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, laughs during the Advanced Lithium Batteries for Automobile Applications (ABAA) conference in Ulm, Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Whittingham is one of three scientists who have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions to lithium-ion batteries, which have reshaped energy storage and transformed cars, mobile phones and many other devices in an increasingly portable and electronic world. (Courtesy photo by Sebastian Gollnow)

Stanley Whittingham, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, laughs during the Advanced Lithium Batteries for Automobile Applications (ABAA) conference in Ulm, Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Whittingham is one of three scientists who have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions to lithium-ion batteries, which have reshaped energy storage and transformed cars, mobile phones and many other devices in an increasingly portable and electronic world. (Courtesy photo by Sebastian Gollnow)

STOCKHOLM — If you’re reading this on a cellphone or laptop computer, you might thank this year’s three winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries developed by the British, American and Japanese winners are far more revolutionary than just for on-the-go computing and calling. The breakthroughs they achieved also made storing energy from renewable sources more feasible, opening up a whole new front in the fight against global warming.

“This is a highly charged story of tremendous potential,” quipped Olof Ramstrom of the Nobel committee for chemistry.

The prize announced Wednesday went to John B. Goodenough, 97, an American engineering professor at the University of Texas; M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and Akira Yoshino, 71, of chemicals company Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University in Japan.

The three scientists were honored for a truly transformative technology that has permeated billions of lives across the planet, including anyone who uses cellphones, computers, pacemakers, electric cars and beyond.

“The heart of the phone is the rechargeable battery. The heart of the electric vehicle is the rechargeable battery. The success and failure of so many new technologies depends on the batteries,” said Alexej Jerschow, a chemist at New York University, whose research focuses on lithium-ion battery diagnostics.

Goodenough, who is considered an intellectual giant of solid state chemistry and physics, is the oldest person to ever win a Nobel Prize – edging Arthur Ashkin, who was 96 when he was awarded the Nobel for physics last year.

Goodenough still works every day and said he is grateful he was not forced to retire at age 65. “So I’ve had an extra 33 years to keep working,” he told reporters in London.

Whittingham expressed hope the Nobel spotlight could give new impetus to efforts to meet the world’s ravenous – and growing – demands for energy.

“I am overcome with gratitude at receiving this award, and I honestly have so many people to thank, I don’t know where to begin,” he said in a statement issued by his university. “It is my hope that this recognition will help to shine a much-needed light on the nation’s energy future.”

The three laureates each had unique breakthroughs that cumulatively laid the foundation for the development of a commercial rechargeable battery to replace alkaline batteries containing lead, nickel or zinc that had their origins in the 19th century.

Lithium-ion batteries are the first truly portable and rechargeable batteries, and took more than a decade to develop. Their discovery drew upon the work of multiple scientists in the U.S., Japan and around the world.

The work had its roots in the oil crisis in the 1970s. Whittingham, who researched superconductors at Stanford University, was hired by Exxon when the petroleum giant was investing in research into other fields of energy amid concerns about depleting oil reserves.

Exxon gave researchers like him “the freedom to do pretty much what they wanted as long as it did not involve petroleum,” the Nobel committee said.

In his work, Whittingham harnessed the enormous tendency of lithium – the lightest metal – to give away its electrons to make a battery capable of generating just over two volts. Lithium, of all the elements, “is the one that most willingly releases electrons,” the committee said.

By 1980, building on Whittingham’s work, Goodenough had doubled the capacity of the battery to four volts by using cobalt oxide in the cathode – one of two electrodes, along with the anode, that make up the ends of a battery.

But that battery remained too explosive for general commercial use. That’s where Yoshino’s work in the 1980s came in. He eliminated the volatile pure lithium from the battery, and instead opted for lithium ions that are safer.

Yoshino substituted petroleum coke, a carbon material, in the battery’s anode. This step paved the way for the first lightweight, safe, durable and rechargeable commercial batteries to be built and enter the market in 1991.

“We have gained access to a technical revolution,” said Sara Snogerup Linse of the Nobel committee for chemistry, alluding to the environmental benefits of the discoveries. “The ability to store energy from renewable sources – the sun, the wind – opens up for sustainable energy consumption.”

Whittingham said he had no inkling that his work decades ago would have such a profound impact. “We thought it would be nice and help in a few things, but never dreamed it would revolutionize electronics and everything else,” he said.

He called the prize “recognition for the whole field.”

“Hundreds of people have worked on lithium-ion batteries, and I think people felt that they were being overlooked,” he said. “We’re hoping this will push the field further and faster.”

The trio will share a $918,000 cash award. Their gold medals and diplomas will be conferred in Stockholm on Dec. 10 – the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

The announcement came on the third day of Nobel week.

On Tuesday, Canadian-American James Peebles won the Nobel physics prize for his theoretical discoveries in cosmology together with Swiss scientists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, who were honored for finding an exoplanet – a planet outside our solar system – that orbits a solar-type star.

Americans William G. Kaelin Jr. and Gregg L. Semenza and Britain’s Peter J. Ratcliffe won the Nobel for advances in physiology or medicine on Monday. They were cited for their discoveries of “how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.”

Two Nobel literature laureates are to be announced Thursday – one for 2018 and one for 2019 – because last year’s award was suspended after a sex-abuse scandal rocked the Swedish Academy. The coveted Nobel Peace Prize is Friday and the economics award will be announced on Monday.

Yoshino said he mistakenly thought there might be a long wait before the Nobel committee turned to his specialty. He broke the news to his wife, who was just as surprised as he.

“I only spoke to her briefly and said, ‘I got it,’ and ... she was so surprised that her knees almost gave way,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

The laureates said the field and its applications are still a work in progress, and they want to keep at it.

Yoshino said lithium-ion batteries could have greater application in the ocean and space, but that further research and development are needed to adapt them to other gadgets and purposes. “Lithium-ion itself is still full of unknowns,” he said.

The prize turned out to be a bit of a family affair among the researchers: Yoshino said he visits Goodenough nearly every year in Texas.

“For him, I’m like his son,” the Japanese laureate said. “He takes very good care of me.”

Goodenough, in his own way, seemed to return the favor, telling reporters in London that in all of his 97 years: “What am I most proud of? I don’t know, I would say all my friends.”

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