The saying ‘power in your hands’ has never been more true. All because of the hard work of these Nobel Laureates.
Working on a laptop or a smartphone, taking an e-scooter or a hybrid car to work, photographing with a digital camera, everyone needs lithium-ion batteries. Nearly 30 years ago, the energy stores laid the foundation for another world. One that is more mobile than ever before and more environmentally friendly. The era of the still omnipresent power donors could come to an end in the foreseeable future.
The Winners of Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2019
The developers, John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, lived at a time when batteries were heavy and weak. As heavy as car batteries are today. Everyone needed a battery that was light, stores a lot of energy and lasts for a long time. The result was first a pure lithium, then a lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion batteries are now not only in almost all technical devices and electric cars, they also store energy that comes from renewable sources. Even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, they ensure that the energy requirements are met without a power station having to burn coal around the clock.
Early stages of Development
At the very beginning of the development was the insight that lithium is the perfect material for a battery. It is the lightest metal and gives off electrons very easily. When electrons migrate, voltage is created and electricity flows. The batteries are constructed with the same principle. They have a positive and a negative pole, which are separated from each other, and between which there is an electrolyte fluid. If the two poles are connected to each other, for example because they are connected to an electrical appliance, negatively charged electrons dissolve at the negative pole due to chemical reactions and run to the positive pole. When charging the battery, the opposite happens, the electrons migrate back to the negative pole.
The English-American chemist Stanley Whittingham was the first to build a working lithium battery in 1976. He chose the light metal for its negative pole, the plus pole was ultimately made of titanium disulfide. The material consisted of thin layers, between which the electrons of lithium could squeeze perfectly even at room temperature. Whittingham’s employer, the oil company Exxon, which was looking for a different energy store because of rising oil prices, was impressed by the discovery until the batteries exploded during production.
The Jena-born researcher John Goodenough was Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford University in the late 1970s. He researched a compound for the positive pole of the battery, which promised even more electrical voltage, and was successful. A compound of lithium and oxidized cobalt worked so well that the voltage of the battery doubled to four volts. In addition, Goodenough found that he did not have to make the battery in the charged state – a clear advantage for the production.
But the first commercial lithium battery was developed by another, the third Nobel laureate in chemistry Akira Yoshino. The Japanese engineer worked in the 1970s and 1980s with the chemical company Asahi Kasei, that wanted to develop batteries to meet the increasing demand in Japan for high-performance rechargeable batteries for video cameras, cordless phones and computers. To improve Goodenough’s lithium battery, Yoshino took the negative pole of the battery. Instead of pure lithium he tried different compounds. In his layering he worked lithium ions into it, the powerful lithium-ion battery was created.
Their advantages over the simple lithium battery are that the electrons hardly react with the material of the poles. The wear is minimal, which extends the durability. Also, lithium-ion batteries are safer. If a lithium ion battery falls to the ground or is hit by a falling suitcase on the plane, it will not explode. This is because lithium reacts very easily in its atomic form.
To date, these batteries in laptops, tablets, e-bikes and craft devices are considered unrivaled. They can only be further improved. For a long time, researchers have been searching the periodic table for other elements for batteries. Elements that are rechargeable, preferably contain no toxic substances and consist of readily available, inexpensive materials. At the moment, there is no success but should anyone find such a successor, he would probably have good chances to become a Nobel laureate himself.