Lithium-ion battery pioneers win Nobel

STOCKHOLM (AFP) – Three researchers won the Nobel Chemistry Prize yesterday for the development of lithium-ion batteries, paving the way for smartphones and a fossil fuel-free society.

John Goodenough of the United States (US) – at 97 the oldest person to be awarded a Nobel prize – Britain’s Stanley Whittingham, and Japan’s Akira Yoshino will share the SEK9 million prize equally, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

“This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles and can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society,” the jury said.

“Lithium batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991,” and were “of the greatest benefit to humankind”.

Seeking an alternative source of power during the oil crisis of the 1970s, Whittingham discovered a way to harness the potential energy in lithium, a metal so light it floats on water.

He constructed a battery partly made of lithium that utilised the element’s natural tendency to shed electrons, thereby transferring energy.

However the battery was too unstable to be used. Goodenough built on Whittingham’s prototype, substituting a different metal compound and doubling the potential energy of the battery to four volts.

This paved the way for far more powerful and durable batteries in the future.

In 1985, Yoshino instead used a carbon-based material that stores lithium-ions, finally rendering the battery commercially viable.

The culmination of the trio’s research resulted in the most powerful, lightweight and rechargeable battery ever seen.

“This is such a wonderful thing, and I am very surprised,” Yoshino told reporters in Tokyo after winning the prize. He said he had only gotten a mobile phone in recent years.

“I have long felt a bit of rejection towards mobile phones, so I have never had one until recently.

“I know the lithium-ion battery really benefitted mobile phones”, he said, adding he did “not really” feel that he had helped make a product that benefitted his life.

For Yoshino, a good scientist needed two qualities.

“One thing is that you have to have a flexible brain. Flexibility. The other is tenacity. You stay persistent and never give up.”

Whittingham, 77, said he was “overcome with gratitude at receiving this award”.

His research “has helped advance how we store and use energy at a foundational level, and it is my hope that this recognition will help to shine a much-needed light on the (US) nation’s energy future,” he said on the website of Binghamton University in New York where he is a professor.

Yoshino, 71, works at the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and is a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, while Goodenough holds the Cockrell Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

The trio will receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

Last year, the honour went to US scientists Frances Arnold and George Smith and British researcher Gregory Winter for developing enzymes used for greener and safer chemistry and antibody drugs with fewer side effects.

Arnold was just the fifth woman to clinch chemistry’s most prestigious honour since Marie Curie in 1911.

This year’s Nobel season kicked off on Monday with the Medicine Prize, followed by the Physics Prize on Tuesday.