Three Scientists Created a Rechargeable World, Win Nobel Prize

October 09, 2019

On Wednesday, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing lithium-ion batteries.

In a complex, electrochemical process, lithium-ion batteries deliver power to many of the devices people use every day. They are in the mobile phone in your pocket, on your desk in the laptop beside you and in the electric car you drive on your commute.

Binghamton University professor M. Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino will share the award for their revolutionary work.

It began in the 1970s during the oil crisis, in a search for fossil fuel-free energy technologies. Today, work is still being done to increase the efficiency of these batteries and move closer to that goal.

What is a lithium-ion battery?

Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable power sources that are used in portable devices like mobile phones and laptops, as well as electric cars, wind and solar energy storage.

According to the Department of Energy, a lithium-ion battery has an anode and cathode — or electric conductors we know as the “-” and “+” ends of a battery — that store lithium, an electrolyte and separator that helps in the distribution of lithium ions through the battery, and collectors for positive and negative electrical currents.

When a lithium-ion battery discharges, a flow of ions is created from the anode to the cathode, generating the necessary power.

When you charge the battery, the flow reverses from the cathode to the anode.

Lithium-ion batteries are lighter and last longer than commonly used alkaline batteries — they can be charged hundreds of times without performance deterioration — and they can perform even in extreme temperatures.

In the early ’70s, Whittingham used lithium titanium sulfide to create the first functional lithium battery. Then, in 1980, John Goodenough (University of Texas at Austin) came up with the idea of using lithium cobalt oxide. In 1985, Akira Yoshino (Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University) produced the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery using petroleum coke.

How is a lithium-ion battery used?

As the battery is being discharged, lithium ions are inserted into the lithium-based cathode. As the battery charges, lithium ions are removed from the layers of cathode.

“It’s like putting jam in a sandwich,” Whittingham said in a 2015 interview with the Press & Sun-Bulletin. “In the chemical terms, it means you have a crystal structure, and we can put lithium ions in, take them out, and the structure’s exactly the same afterwards. We retain the crystal structure.”

That’s what allows lithium-ion batteries to keep charging and recharging.

Why does this research matter?

Lithium-ion batteries are powering everything from portable electronics to electric cars these days. They are in iPhones, laptops and home generators. They can also store energy from solar and wind power.

And there is room for more advancement, to harness more power in the same size battery.

Unlike hybrid cars, which typically use nickel-metal hydride batteries, electric cars use higher-performance lithium-ion batteries. Their high power-to-weight ratio, energy efficiency and temperature control are particularly useful for transportation purposes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In the future, lithium-ion batteries could help electric cars run more efficiently, traveling farther distances on a single charge. It means more powerful, longer-lasting portable device batteries without increasing their size.

And, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who awarded the trio the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, lithium-ion batteries have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, “and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Borrelli, Katie Sullivan. (2019). “How Nobel Prize winners’ lithium-ion battery research impacts everyday life”. Retrieved from