Scientists win Nobel prize for developing Li-ion batteries

Article by Amanda Jasi

Nobel Media
Illustrations of the winners of the 2019 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. Left to right: Goodenough, Whittingham, and Yoshino.

THE 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino, who each made essential contributions to the development of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries.

Li-ion batteries are lightweight, rechargeable and powerful. They are used globally to power portable electronics, such as mobile phones and laptops, electronic vehicles (EVs), and to store energy from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. They have revolutionised society and laid the foundations to enable it to become wireless and fossil fuel-free.

Whittingham, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering at Binghamton University, US, laid the foundation for the Li-ion battery during the 1970s oil crisis. He worked to develop methods that could lead to fossil fuel-free energy technologies. His research into superconductors led to the discovery of an extremely energy-rich material which he used to create an innovative cathode in a lithium battery. It was made from titanium disulfide which, at a molecular level, can intercalate lithium ions.

The anode was partially made from metallic lithium, which has a strong drive to release electrons. The resulting battery had just over 2 V in potential. However, because metallic lithium is reactive, the battery was too explosive to be viable.

In his work, Goodenough, Professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, US, increased the potential of Li-ion batteries. He predicted that a metal oxide cathode would allow for a greater potential than a metal sulfide and after systematic research, in 1980, he demonstrated that cobalt oxide intercalated with lithium ions can produce a potential of up to 4 V. This important breakthrough led to the development of much more powerful batteries.

Following on from Goodenough, Yoshino further developed the lithium battery, culminating in the creation of the first commercially viable Li-ion battery in 1985. Yoshino is an Honorary Fellow of Japanese chemicals company Asahi Kasei and a Professor in the Graduate School of Science and Technology at Meijo University, Japan. Instead of using reactive lithium in the anode, Yoshino instead used petroleum coke, a carbon material which like cobalt oxide can intercalate lithium ions.

The resulting battery was lightweight, hardwearing, and could be charged hundreds of times before performance deteriorated.

The advantage of Li-ion batteries is that they are not based on chemical reactions that break down electrodes. Rather, they are based on the flow of Li-ions between the anode and cathode.

Lithium battery innovations continue. For example, last year researchers from US’ University of Illinois at Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory developed a prototype for a novel design of “lithium-air” battery. Lithium-air batteries can store five times more energy than Li-ion batteries currently used in items such as laptops and EVs.

According to research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, in 2017, global sales to satisfy Li-ion battery demand for EVs and stationary storage amounted to about 60–70 GWh. By 2040, sales could increase to as much as 4 TWh.

Recently, Eramet, BASF, and SUEZ, announced a partnership to develop an innovative, closed loop process to recycle Li-ion batteries from EVs.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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