The Nobel Prize in Chemistry: “Very well-deserved!”

9 oktober 2019

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for developing the lithium-ion battery, which is used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric cars.

Daniel Brandell, professor at the Department of
Chemistry – Ångström Laboratory.

“The Nobel Committee has made a good decision. It is very well-deserved,” says Daniel Brandell, a professor at the Department of Chemistry – Ångström Laboratory at Uppsala University. “These individuals who have worked for a long time in the industry and have been involved in pioneering research discoveries. They have helped elevate these chemicals into the types of technical applications they have today, something that has been important in developing electromobility and other types of energy storage solutions.”

Lithium-ion batteries are used in today’s portable electronics and have enabled the creation of long-range electric cars and the storage of energy from renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

The foundation for the lithium-ion battery was laid during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Stanley Whittingham conducted research on superconductors (materials characterised by infinitely large electrical conductivity) and discovered an extremely energy-rich material. From this material he created an innovative cathode in a lithium battery. It consisted of titanium disulphide which at the molecular level forms cavities that can house – intercalate – lithium ions. The battery’s anode was made partially from metallic lithium, which is particularly good at releasing electrons. This resulted in a battery with great potential, just over two volts. But metallic lithium is reactive, and the battery became too explosive to be useful.

Paved the way for much more powerful batteries

John Goodenough predicted that the cathode material would have even greater potential if it were made using a metal oxide instead of a metal sulphide. After a systematic search, in 1980 he demonstrated that cobalt oxide with intercalated lithium ions can provide a voltage of four volts, a breakthrough that paved the way for much more powerful batteries.

With Goodenough’s cathode as a basis, Akira Yoshino created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985. Instead of reactive lithium in the anode, he used graphite, a carbon material that, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, can intercalate lithium ions. The result was a light and durable battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated.

“Our research at Ångström Advanced Battery Centre is largely based on many of the material categories and cell chemistries for which the Nobel Laureates laid the foundation. You could say we are working two or three generations later and stand on these shoulders of giants,” says Brandell.

New solutions for energy storage and electromobility

“We also have very good individual contacts with all three of them. Stanley Whittingham has been here as an opponent, and Akira Yoshino visited us at the Ångström Laboratory and presented a lecture a few years ago. Awarding of the Nobel Prize for development of the lithium-ion battery is also very timely. It shines the spotlight on technical solutions for energy storage and electromobility. Without the lithium-ion battery, electric vehicles would not be competitive compared to fossil-fuel powered vehicles. Nor could we have the laptops and smart mobile phones that we use today. The lithium-ion battery has meant a lot to the network society and is destined to become the dominant technology for energy storage.”