Recharging the Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Some have said it is long overdue, given the ubiquity of mobile electronic gadgets that rely on the developments honored in this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but whether it's overdue or not, John B. Goodenough of The University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, State University of New York, USA, and Akira Yoshino of the Asahi Kasei Corporation, Tokyo, Japan and Meijo University, Nagoya, Japan, are this year's recipients. The honor goes to them for their development of lithium-ion batteries.

It might be said that Whittingham laid the foundations for the development of the modern rechargeable battery back in the early 1970s at the height of the oil crisis. He was initially looking for alternative energy sources and focusing on superconductors when he began experimenting with titanium disulfide. He changed tack, recognizing that a device that could store electricity, perhaps generated by sustainable means, would be more immediately useful than a perhaps never-ending search for an alternative energy source. Titanium disulfide held promise. This substance has spaces that could intercalate lithium ions and so could find use as a cathode for a lithium battery with lithium metal acting as the anode.

Goodenough saw the potential, as it were, but swapped out that metal sulfide for an oxide, reasoning that it would be more effective and more efficient. In 1980, he demonstrated that a battery based on cobalt oxide could intercalate lithium ions and generate four volts.

Yoshino then realized the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985 by avoiding the use of reactive lithium metal for the anode and instead using petroleum coke, a carbon-based material that could be loaded with lithium ions. Fundamentally, the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that came from these efforts could be cycled hundreds of times before they wear out and hit the market, ultimately to revolutionize the world of portable electronics in 1991.

Materials Today's Editor-in-Chief, Gleb Yushin of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, tells us that lithium-ion batteries have become "the key technology driving the current shift from pollution- and global warming-inducing fossil fuel combustion economy of the past to the sustainable, clean energy economy of the future." He adds that Whittingham was the first to demonstrate the principle of such an intercalation-type Li-ion battery and then Goodenough and Yoshino developed the key materials used in most commercial devices today. "The impact of their inventions is truly monumental," he adds.

In 2018, Whittingham was selected to receive the prestigious Materials Today Innovation Award and Yushin tells us he was honored to serve on the selection committee for that award. He enthuses that he hopes many future winners of the Materials Today Awards will also be eventually distinguished by the Nobel Award committee. "Materials define the performance of all the human-made objects, including tools, structures, and devices. No wonder inventions of novel materials lead to the major disruptions in various industries," Yushin adds.

So, what is next after intercalation-type lithium-ion batteries? Yushin suggests that it will be "conversion-type" Li-ion batteries. "These might double or triple the energy stored in commercial Li-ion cells at a fraction of the cost and with a much lower environmental impact," he says. Unfortunately, in contrast to commercial materials, novel conversion-type electrodes are much harder to produce and many innovations still need to be implemented before they become viable.

Yushin adds that "The key for the commercial success of new battery technologies will be the ability to manufacture novel electrode materials with high precision, at a large scale, and at a low cost." Several startup companies have already demonstrated what he calls extremely promising early results and the rest of the industry will follow.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase. His popular science book Deceived Wisdom is now available.

Prof M. Stanley Whittingham was the recipient of the 2018 Materials Today Innovation Award. for more information, and to submit a nomination for the 2019 Materials Today Innovation Award, click here.