Decades later, inventors of lithium-ion battery win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Few inventions have had more of an impact in shaping the modern world of high tech gadgets than the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. First developed in the 1970s, the three scientists credited with inventing this pioneering piece of technology were today awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The recipients include 97-year-old John B. Goodenough of The University of Texas at Austin, 77-year-old M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, and 71-year-old Akira Yoshino of Japan’s Meijo University. All three contributed toward the development of lithium-ion batteries. They will share the 9 million Swedish kroner ($905,000) prize awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden.

In a lithium-ion battery, lithium ions move from a negative electrode through an electrolyte to a positive electrode during discharge. They then reverse this journey when charging. Lithium is among the lightest elements in the periodic table, and has one of the largest electrochemical potentials. This makes a winning combination for batteries, resulting in high voltages in compact and light volumes. The batteries have high energy density, no memory effect, and low self-discharge. While they can pose a safety hazard if damaged or incorrectly charged, they are a crucial component in modern electrical devices. (A new updated version of the battery could prove safer.)

Each of this year’s Novel laureates helped with a different stage in creating the groundbreaking batteries. Whittingham developed the first functioning lithium battery in the early 1970s. However, it was too explosive to be commercialized. Goodenough, who is the oldest ever Nobel laureate, later developed more powerful batteries. Finally, Yoshino further modified the design and created the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1985. He eliminated pure lithium from the battery, instead basing the battery on lithium ions, which are safer than pure lithium.

“Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives and are used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles,” the Nobel Prize committee tweeted to announce the news. “Through their work, this year’s Chemistry Laureates have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”

On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced three scientists, Canadian scientist James Peebles and Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in unraveling what the universe is made of, and for being the first to discover an exoplanet.