The three main scientists who contributed to the creation of the lithium-ion battery were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday.
Stanley Whittinghamn, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino developed the lithium-ion battery working separately over nearly two decades. Their efforts have transformed modern society, enabling the widespread use of portable electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptops.
“Lithium-ion batteries are used globally to power the portable electronics that we use to communicate, work, study, listen to music, and search for knowledge,” the Nobel committee said in a press release.
The lithium-ion battery has also proved critical in the development of viable renewable energy sources and electric vehicles. These advances have helped countries gradually shift away from fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
Lithium-ion batteries work by sending a flow of electrons between the two sides of a battery — the anode and cathode — and generating an electrical current that powers a device. While this energy is being expended, electrons flow from the anode to the cathode. When the battery is being recharged, electrons flow in the opposite direction.
This year’s #NobelPrize laureate Akira Yoshino succeeded in eliminating pure lithium from the battery, instead basing it wholly on lithium ions, which are safer than pure lithium. This made the battery workable in practice. pic.twitter.com/9tqSh5zTsS— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 9, 2019
Lithium batteries can last for several hundred charges. In vehicles, lithium-ion batteries tend to last for at least five years of average use.
When it comes to renewable energy, lithium-ion batteries help to solve the riddle of energy storage. Producing energy from sources like solar power and wind power is highly variable because solar panels and windmills are dependent on weather conditions. Unlike fossil fuels, which can be burned when they’re needed, renewable energy needs to be used or stored right away otherwise it vanishes.
Most electricity providers, meanwhile, are unable to rapidly accommodate surges and dips in renewable energy and therefore need storage equipment to prevent energy from going to waste.
Lithium-ion batteries have become the most common way to store this energy.
As a result, this technology has helped to accelerate the advance of renewable energy, an essential undertaking as climate change intensifies around the world.
Lithium-ion batteries are not without their flaws. Recycling lithium-ion batteries remains a hurdle and their improper disposal has environmental consequences. Further, they often use conflict minerals such as cobalt that are mined in conflict zones with exploited labor.
These issues are being ironed out as scientists refine how lithium-ion batteries are made, and develop new types of rechargeable batteries.
In the meantime, lithium-ion batteries will continue to power technological progress around the world.
“They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the Nobel committee said.