Lithium-ion batteries, which are the dominant buzz word in the world of electric vehicles, is today’s headline news. Whether it is enabling electric mobility, powering laptops, reducing power shortages in rural areas or lighting up the humble hand-torch, Li-ion batteries are doing the job capably and, importantly, reducing the use of fossil fuel.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 has rewarded the development of the lithium-ion battery. This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles. It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.
Today, the Nobel Prize Committee has awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize to three inventors for their development of Li-ion batteries. “Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991, leading the foundation to a wireless, fossil fuel-free society,” the organisers said. They created a rechargeable world.
The announcement comes at a time when globally governments, including India, are pushing for cleaner mobility solutions in the form of electric vehicles (EVs). Mass adoption of electric mobility is expected to bring down pollution levels emanating from fossil fuels used currently.
According to a statement released by the Nobel Committee, the prize this year in chemistry will be conferred to Stanley Whittingham (Binghamton University, State University of New York, USA); John Goodenough (The University of Texas at Austin, USA); and Akira Yoshino (Asahi Kasei Corporation, Tokyo, Japan / Meijo University, Nagoya, Japan). They will share the 9 million Swedish kroner (Rs 6.46 crore) between them.
Oil crisis led to development of Li-ion battery
According to the Nobel Committee, the foundation of the lithium-ion battery was laid during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Stanley Whittingham worked on developing methods that could lead to fossil fuel-free energy technologies. He started to research superconductors and discovered an extremely energy-rich material, which he used to create an innovative cathode in a lithium battery.
This was made from titanium disulphide which, at a molecular level, has spaces that can house – intercalate – lithium ions. The battery’s anode was partially made from metallic lithium, which has a strong drive to release electrons. This resulted in a battery that literally had great potential, just over two volts. However, metallic lithium is reactive and the battery was too explosive to be viable.
John Goodenough took it to the next level when he predicted that the cathode would have even greater potential if it was made using a metal oxide instead of a metal sulphide. After a systematic search, in 1980 he demonstrated that cobalt oxide with intercalated lithium ions can produce as much as four volts. This was an important breakthrough and would lead to much more powerful batteries.
Further, with Goodenough’s cathode as a basis, Akira Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. Rather than using reactive lithium in the anode, he used petroleum coke, a carbon material that, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, can intercalate lithium ions. The result was a lightweight, hardwearing battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated. The advantage of lithium-ion batteries is that they are not based upon chemical reactions that break down the electrodes, but upon lithium ions flowing back and forth between the anode and cathode.
While Goodenough and Whittingham are Germany and UK nationals respectively, Yoshino is from Japan.
Lithium-ion battery – necessary for a fossil fuel-free society
In 1991, a major Japanese electronics company started selling the first lithium-ion batteries, leading to a revolution in electronics. Mobile phones shrank, computers became portable and MP3 players and tablets were developed.
Subsequently, researchers around the world have searched through the periodic table on the hunt for even better batteries, but no one has yet succeeded in inventing something that beats the lithiumion battery’s high capacity and voltage. However, the lithium-ion battery has been changed and improved; among other things, John Goodenough has replaced the cobalt oxide with iron phosphate, which makes the battery more environmentally friendly.
Like almost everything else, the production of lithium-ion batteries has an impact on the environment, but there are also huge environmental benefits. The battery has enabled the development of cleaner energy technologies and electric vehicles, thus contributing to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and particulates.