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Lithium-ion battery pioneers bag chemistry Nobel prize

09 Oct 2019 Hamish Johnston
Chemistry winners
Fully charged. the 2019 chemistry winners are John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino. (© Nobel Media 2019. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed)

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for the development of lithium-ion batteries.

The trio will share the SEK 9m (about £740,000) prize money equally and the award will be presented at a ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December.

“Electrochemistry is at the heart of this award, but other branches of chemistry have played a part,” said Nobel Committee member Olof Ramstrom from the University of Massachusetts when the winners were announced. “This prize is also connected to physics and even engineering – it’s a good example of how these disciplines have come together.”

Speaking over the telephone at the press conference, Yoshino said that it  was “amazing” to hear he had won the Nobel prize. He adds that it was “curiosity” rather than thinking about the immediate applications that pushed the work and says that lithium-ion batteries are being used to build a “sustainable society”.

The story of the lithium-ion battery begins in the oil crisis of the 1970s when Whittingham was trying to develop new energy systems. He discovered that a battery cathode made of titanium disulphide can absorb large numbers of lithium ions from a lithium anode. In 1980, Goodenough showed that an even better performing cathode can be made from cobalt oxide.

Metallic lithium is an excellent anode material because it readily gives up electrons, however it is highly reactive and early batteries were prone to exploding. In 1985 Akira Yoshino solved this problem by creating a carbon-based anode that is able to absorb large numbers of lithium ions. This removed the need to use reactive metallic lithium and the first commercial lithium–ion battery appeared in 1991. Since then, the devices have powered a revolutions in handheld electronics and electric vehicles.

Oldest ever winner

Goodenough did a PhD in physics at the University of Chicago and at 97 is the oldest person ever to receive a Nobel prize. An American citizen, he has worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Oxford and the University of Texas at Austin.

Whittingham is a chemist who was born in the UK in 1941 and is based at Binghamton University in the US.

Also a chemist, Akira Yoshino was born in Osaka, Japan in 1948 and is at the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Japan and Meijo University in Nagoya.

The physical chemist and nanoscientist Rodney Ruoff of the Institute for Basic Science Center for Multidimensional Carbon Materials in Korea had been colleague of Goodenough’s at the University of Texas. He told Physics World that Goodenough is “fun and fascinating”. “He’s a well-rounded individual, well read on many topics as well, of course, topics of science surrounding the things he has done during his research career,” says Ruoff, “I’m really delighted that he has received this honour along with [Whittingham and Yoshino]”.

Learn more about lithium-ion batteries:

We have also created a collection of key papers by Goodenough, Whittingham and Yoshino, which are free to read until 31 October 2019. You will find these papers below the list of papers written by the 2019 physics Nobel Laureates.

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