John B. Goodenough, an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, at 97, the oldest Nobel recipient in any category, was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for their work in developing the lithium-ion battery.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries – lightweight enough to be used in a mobile phone or tablet, yet powerful enough to store wind and solar energy or power an electric car – “have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” said the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in its announcement on Wednesday.
The technology has revolutionized the world since its commercial debut in the early 1990s, the committee said, but its roots date to the oil crisis of the early 1970s, when Whittingham joined Exxon to work on developing alternatives to fossil fuel.
Batteries are powered by the flow of ions from one electrode, known as the anode, to another, the cathode. Whittingham knew that the lightweight lithium, which easily gives up the lone electron in its outer electron shell, would be ideal for an anode. For the cathode, where the lithium ions would travel, Whittingham drew upon his work on intercalation, how ions insert themselves into atom-sized spaces within solid materials. Tantalum disulfide could house, or intercalate, ions, so it was tested as a cathode, later to be replaced by the similar but more lightweight titanium disulfide.
Charging the battery returns the lithium ions to the anode, yet repeated recharging led to short-circuiting, which could cause fires. Whittingham made the battery safer by adding aluminum to the lithium anode before announcing his discovery in 1976.
Goodenough improved on the capacity of the battery in the late 1970s while a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oxford University. In searching for a cathode material that could house more ions, Goodenough found that a battery with a cobalt oxide cathode was nearly twice as powerful as Whittingham’s version.
Goodenough was named a AAAS elected Fellow by the Chemistry section in 1996 and has been a AAAS member since 1963.
Yoshino created the first commercially viable version while working at the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Japan. Making further adjustments to anode materials to replace the reactive and dangerous pure lithium, Yoshino used petroleum coke, an oil-industry byproduct. After extensive safety testing, the first lithium-ion batteries hit the market in Japan in 1991.
“No one has yet succeeded in inventing something that beats the lithium-ion battery’s high capacity and voltage,” said the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, but efforts are underway to refine and improve battery technology.
Goodenough has since worked on replacing the cobalt oxide in the lithium-ion battery cathode with iron phosphate, a more environmentally friendly option, according to the committee. Goodenough and his team also recently identified a new safe cathode material for use in sodium-ion batteries, according to the University of Texas, Austin, where Goodenough has been a professor since 1986, holding faculty positions in the departments of mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering.
Goodenough is also the oldest-ever recipient of a Nobel Prize in any category.
In the UT Austin announcement, he said, “Live to 97 and you can do anything.”
[Associated image: Niklas Elmehed/© Nobel Media]