Nobel Prize in Chemistry Goes to Creators of Modern Rechargeable Batteries
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There’s a good chance the device you’re reading this story on right now is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Increasingly, these batteries power our world. They not only electrify the technology in our pockets but also electric cars, and sometimes, homes.
Creators of modern rechargeable batteries share Nobel prize
If you had to slip a couple of AAs into your smartphone every morning to check your email, browse Instagram and text your friends, chances are the mobile revolution would not have been quite so revolutionary. Fortunately, the rechargeable lithium-ion battery was invented — a decades-long task for which three men have just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The prize this year honours M. Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino, all of whom contributed to the development of what is today the most common form of portable power. Without them (and of course, those they worked with, and those who came before) we would be tied to even more wasteful and/or stationary sources of energy.
2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry celebrates rechargeable batteries that power our world
According to the Nobel committee, the three scientists “have created the right conditions for a wireless and fossil-fuel-free society, and so brought the greatest benefit to humankind.” And for that, they qualify for the award.But they didn’t do it working together. They did it by iterating on each others’ work.
As the Nobel Prize committee tells it, the story of lithium-ion batteries begins with Whittingham, who was an engineer at Exxon during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Facing the possibility of oil shortages in the future, the company put money and research muscle into developing rechargeable batteries. There were some in existence at the time, but they were bulky, heavy, and had a low output.
Whittingham looked to the element lithium — one of the lightest, and one of the most reactive (willing to give up electrons) elements on the periodic table — to make a new battery. But the properties that make lithium desirable for batteries also make it unstable and prone to catching fire. Whittingham successfully developed the predecessor to the lithium batteries we know today. But it was a bit dangerous — prone to exploding. And then, when the oil crisis subsided, Exxon de-prioritized the research.
Nobel prize in chemistry awarded for work on lithium-ion batteries
Lead-acid batteries had been in use for nearly a century by the time people really got to thinking about taking things to the next level with lithium, lightweight metal with desirable electrical properties. But lithium is also highly reactive with air and water, making finding suitable substances to pair it with difficulty.
If scientists can find the right balance of capacity, cost, size, and weight, some think that these future types of lithium batteries could form the basis of a green electrical grid, providing the energy storage to take up solar and wind energy when those renewable sources are peaking—and unleashing their energy when night falls and winds die down. “I think this will probably be the biggest contribution to the environmental problem” of sustainability, Yoshino said at a news conference today.
Today’s announcement means all nine laureates in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine this year are men, worsening an already huge gender gap in the world’s most prestigious science awards. Of 616 Nobels awarded since 1901 in the three fields, only 20 (3.25%) have gone to women. (The disparity is even bigger when the laureates’ share of each Nobel is taken into account.) The gap has increasingly come under criticism; a statistical analysis published in May suggested women lag not because they perform less well, but as a result of bias.
Many, many improvements have been made since then, but the essentials of the technology were laid out by these teams. And soon after lithium-ion batteries were shown to be safe, capacious and able to be recharged hundreds of times, they were found in laptops, medical devices and, eventually, mobile phones. Today, after three more decades of enhancements, lithium batteries are now taking on gasoline as the energy storage medium of choice for human transportation.
The three scholars whose work most powerfully advanced this technology from theory to commercial reality were awarded equal shares of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, each taking home a third of the nearly million dollars and, more importantly, the distinction of being recognized in historic fashion.