Nobel prize honors breakthroughs on lithium-ion batteries
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 had researched superconductors at Stanford University, was hired by Exxon at a time 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.