Nobel Prize for Chemistry Jointly Awarded to Three Scientists

The Laureates were awarded for the development of lithium-ion batteries.
Fabienne Lang

This year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three distinguished individuals for providing us with a rechargeable world.

Thanks to the following three scientists, we have gained access to a technological revolution:

John B. Goodenough, born in 1922, affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin, is the oldest Nobel Laureate ever to be awarded the prize. British scientist Stanley Whittingham, at Binghampton University in the U.S., was the second Laureate, and lastly, Akira Yoshino, who is affiliated with Meijo University in Japan. 

Our truly portable electronics, such as mobile phones, pacemakers, and long-distance electric cars, and other gadgets are around today, thanks to the research conducted by them. They developed lithium-ion batteries that are used everywhere today.


How does a lithium-ion battery operate?

No longer do batteries weigh two tonnes, but three kilograms. They also now have the ability to store energy from renewable resources, such as the sun and the wind, assisting in our quest for more sustainable energy. 

The three Laureates tamed the reactive element found in batteries in a controlled manner, and today, we're able to use and recharge our durable batteries many hundreds of times.

It may look relatively easy to make a battery, but that's just not the case. It's incredibly hard to produce the science to develop well-working, efficient batteries

Yet, that's precisely what these three Laureates achieved. 

A double-A battery contains two electrodes filled with electrolytes. As these are highly reactive elements, there is sometimes a barrier between the two electrodes. Electrons then pass through the circuit and power the electric device you want to power.

The lightest metal we have is lithium. Lithium also has an enormous tendency to give away one of its electrons, so it then becomes positively charged lithium-ion. 

However, the flip side is that it's a fantastically reactive element. To use lithium-ion in a battery, you have to tame its reactivity  — and that's precisely what these three Laureates achieved through their research.

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How did they do it?

In the 1970s, Whittingham discovered a material called titanium disulfide (a layered material). This allows a battery to reach up to two volts. However, lithium metal is not the most optimal element to have in a battery.

So, what could be used to replace it, all the while keeping or increasing its voltage?

In the early 1980s, Goodenough discovered a fantastic material based on cobalt oxide that could do just this. In fact, it even went up to four volts — a gigantic leap in the battery world. 

However, batteries still had lithium metal. How could this be changed to improve the battery even further?

This is where Yoshino comes into the picture, also in the early 1980s. Yoshino found that petroleum coke also contained layered structures, and a low potential compared to lithium. Combining this with a battery's other materials, it kept the voltage at four volts. 

Thus, thanks to these three researchers' combined discoveries, we are able to use lithium-ion batteries — a battery that has had a dramatic impact on our lives.

In a brief phone call with Dr. Yoshino, in which you could palpably hear his joy, he remarked: "Curiosity is very important for researchers. It's curiosity-driven research that leads to great benefits for human kind. " 

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