By Alfred Nyakinda
Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of the lithium-ion battery, an announcement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday revealed.
The three scientists were recognized for their work in developing the light, rechargeable and powerful battery, widely used today in electronic devices as well as electric cars.
“It is really very hard to design and develop well-working and efficient batteries. As examples, some of the batteries we are still using today, like the lead-acid battery and alkaline battery, they have their origin in the 19th century,” said Professor Olof Ramström, Member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, at the announcement.
“Yet that is exactly what the three laureates have done, they have taken on the challenge and their discoveries have led to the development of the phenomenal, fantastic lithium-ion battery.” he added.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences states that the battery has enabled the exploitation of fluctuating energy sources such as wind and solar power, aiding in the shift towards renewable energy sources.
The battery is also playing a role in the switch from fossil fuel-powered vehicles by spurring the development and increase in acceptance of electric vehicles.
First developed by Whittingham between 1972 and 1976, the lithium-ion battery is great improvement over the heavy lead battery, still used as a starter in car engines, and the non-rechargeable batteries that were predominant in cameras, flashlights and other portable electronic devices.
Whittingham, while seeking an alternative to fossil fuels, created the first lithium-ion battery which had a large energy storage capacity but was volatile, frequently catching fire after being repeatedly used and recharged.
According to Professor Ramström, the next significant challenge to be overcome was the replacement of the highly reactive lithium, without lowering the overall battery potential.
In 1980, Goodenough opened the way for the development of even more powerful lithium-ion batteries by using cobalt oxide which doubled their potential.
As oil became cheaper in the West, Asia became the centre of development of light, rechargeable batteries as Japanese electronics companies sought better ways to power cameras, computers and portable phones.
Using Goodenough’s method, Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985 by using petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refinement, instead of pure lithium which is highly reactive.
Yoshino’s battery, being safer than previous versions, was able to pass safety tests and lithium-ion batteries entered the market in 1991, marking the beginning of a new age in the electronics industry.
“We have gained access to a technical revolution. The laureates developed lightweight batteries with high enough potential to be useful in many applications: truly portable electronics -mobile phones, pacemakers- but also long distance electric cars,” said Prof Sara Snogeruf Linse of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
“The ability to store energy from renewable sources- the sun, the wind-opens up for sustainable energy consumption.” she added.
At 97, John Goodenough becomes the oldest recipient of a Nobel Prize, the second on this list being last year’s winner of the Physics prize, Arthur Ashkin, who was 96.
“The importance of this Chemistry and technology for a more sustainable world has, of course, increased its relevance in recent times and made it a very timely award now, although several of the discoveries were made some time ago,” said Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
“We firmly believe that knowledge is of great benefit to humankind, so the benefit can be of different types; there is a benefit in the knowledge and there is often a benefit in the application, now or at later times.” he added.