This year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry highlighted one of the most significant modern advances in electronic technology. The prize was awarded to physicist John B. Goodenough, and chemists M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.”
The creation of lithium-ion batteries has led to a technological revolution. Lithium-ion batteries have a number of properties that make them particularly useful. They are rechargeable, lightweight and high voltage, which makes them sustainable and applicable to a wide variety of technologies.
Batteries work by sending an electron out of one side — called the anode — through the circuit component that needs power and back into the other side of the battery — the cathode. Lithium is a great candidate for this, because it is light and small, making it easy to pack many lithium atoms into a battery. It also tends to give away one of its electrons, which can then traverse the cell and power the circuit.
In the mid-1970s, Whittingham realized using a layered material as the battery’s cathode and anode allows for lithium to easily move between layers. In 1980, Goodenough discovered that cobalt oxide, a layered material, increases a lithium battery’s potential when used as the cathode.
Eventually, Yoshino proposed petroleum coke as the anode which, combined with Goodenough’s cathode, helps to maintain the battery’s high voltage. As lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode, the electrons they donate cross the circuit to drive the electric device.
When reversed, the process recharges the battery. The battery can be used and recharged hundreds of times before it begins to degrade or lose capacity, changing the paradigm for energy storage and device portability.
With applications from cellphones and biomedical devices to electric vehicles and interplanetary exploration, the multidisciplinary innovations of Goodenough, Whittingham and Yoshino continue to have a powerful impact on society.
AIP has created a Nobel Prize Chemistry resources page which includes a collection of articles from AIP Publishing written by the prize winners that have been made freely available to read through the end of the year.