John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino honoured for sparking a portable technology revolution
Lithium-ion batteries have long been tipped for the award, not least since they have proved pivotal in the development of the high-tech world we inhabit.
“They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the academy said.
While rechargeable batteries were around in the 1970s, they had drawbacks, not least in the amount of energy they could store. Lithium, it was thought, could be an answer since it is a very light metal and easily loses an electron. However, lithium’s reactivity also made it tricky to harness.
In the 1970s Stanley Whittingham tackled the problem when looking to develop approaches for fossil-free energy in light of the oil crisis. His device, the first functional lithium battery, used lithium metal in the anode and lithium ions tucked into titanium disulphide for the cathode. Unfortunately, when this battery was repeatedly recharged, it ran the risk of exploding. To improve safety, Whittingham combined metallic lithium with aluminium in the anode.
Double the battery Voltage
Goodenough picked up the baton at the University of Oxford, and replaced the titanium disulphide in the cathode with cobalt oxide – an approach that doubled the voltage produced.
Use of Lithium ion instead of Lithium
Yoshino used the cathode developed by Goodenough to create the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985, with the anode in his battery composed of lithium ions and electrons housed within a carbon material called petroleum coke. This made the battery much safer than those using lithium metal.
Far lighter and more compact than earlier types of rechargeable battery, and able to hold their charge for longer, they are found in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric cars.