Nobel Prize in Chemistry lithium-ion battery

Nobel at Noon: Chemistry

November 1, 2019

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded for the development of lithium-ion batteries. Since their market debut in Japan in 1991, the lightweight batteries have led to a revolution in truly portable electronics like mobile phones, pacemakers, and electric cars, and a compliment to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.

Cilla Burrow, PhD, senior instructor in chemistry at CU Denver, will lead a discussion about the three discoveries that led to the modern lithium-ion battery for the November 7th Nobel at Noon Series.

The Nobel at Noon Series spotlights each Nobel Prize with an informal presentation and discussion. CU Denver faculty experts discuss the meaning and importance of the Nobel Prize while drawing the audience into a discussion about why this award matters to society as a whole.

The lecture begins at 12 p.m. on Thursday, November 7 in the Wartgow Welcome Center (Student Commons Building, Room 1300). Light refreshments will be provided. Feel free to bring your lunch.

Building a powerful battery

Amidst the 1970s oil crisis, Stanley Whittingham, PhD, distinguished professor at Binghamton University in New York, developed methods that could lead to fossil fuel-free energy technologies at Exxon. He discovered an extremely energy-rich material called titanium disulphide which, at a molecular level, has layers that can house lithium ions. He used the material to create an innovative cathode in a lithium battery.

At that time, an alkaline battery had a potential of 1.5 volts. Whittingham’s new cathode raised his lithium-ion battery to two volts. It was a huge breakthrough, but lithium is a lighweight, highly reactive element. It was quick to catch fire and explode. Whittingham’s battery could never be viable.

John Goodenough, PhD, chair in engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted that the cathode would have an even greater potential if he made it with a metal oxide instead of a metal sulphide. In 1980, he found that a cobalt oxide cathode could produce as much as four volts, doubling the potential and power of the batteries. But the lithium metal anode was still a problem.

Reigning in an explosive element

Akira Yoshino, PhD, honorary fellow at Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and professor at Meijo University, Nagoya, Japan, found that petroleum coke, a carbon material that, like the Goodenough’s cathode’s cobalt oxide, could house lithium ions. With his anode, Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.

Together, the three Nobel laureates created a lightweight, hardwearing battery that can be charged hundreds of times before it degrades or loses capacity, changing our wold forever.