The Infonomist: The tech behind Nobel Prize winners

CAPE TOWN – The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to an invention at the heart of modern life: the rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

The prize was awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are in everything from cellphones, such as iPhones, to laptops and electric vehicles, such as Teslas. They have revolutionised our lives, laying the foundation for a fossil-fuel-free society and future of energy. The story of how this battery was made illustrates what it takes to develop a technology that truly makes a difference in people’s lives.

In the early 1970s, Stanley Whittingham developed the first functional lithium battery. Whittingham is a key figure in the history of the development of lithium batteries, discovering the concept of intercalation electrodes.

Exxon manufactured in 1970s Whittington rechargeable lithium battery, which was based on a titanium disulfide cathode and a lithium-aluminium anode. However, this rechargeable lithium battery could never be made practical. John Goodenough made it more powerful and useful.

In 1980, John Goodenough and his team, working at Oxford University, figured out that a cobalt oxide cathode would make for a more stable battery. During his time as Head of the Inorganic Chemistry Department at Oxford, Professor Goodenough, along with Koichi Mizushima, Philip C Jones and Philip J Wiseman, identified the cathode material that enabled the development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

He took the basic battery design invented by Wittingham and invented a new cathode that greatly stabilised the structure and improved its capacity. This breakthrough ushered in the age of portable electronic devices such as laptops and smartphones.

In 1985, Akira Yoshino created a safer battery that could be recharged hundreds of times – the first viable lithium-ion battery. Yoshino, a 71-year-old honorary fellow with Asahi Kasei and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, is credited as one of the pioneers in developing the widely used power source, which has become indispensable for cellphones and other electronic devices today. Together with a group of researchers, he managed to eliminate the metallic lithium from the anode.

He developed an anode made of petroleum coke containing lithium ions. Yoshino’s group learnt to use more complicated carbon-based materials in electrodes that’d still let lithium ions nestle inside and flow through the battery. Yoshino also developed a way to test the batteries to show that, unlike earlier versions, they wouldn’t easily catch fire.

In 1991, the lithium-ion batteries were launched commercially. Lighter and more powerful than other kinds of rechargeable batteries, they made it possible to develop more powerful portable devices, such as cellphones.

Wesley Diphoko is Editor-in-Chief of The Infonomist. He also serves as the chairperson of the IEEE Open Data Initiative. Follow him on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko


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