Nobel Prize in Chemistry Honors Work on Lithium-Ion Batteries


John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of lightweight lithium-ion batteries, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Wednesday in Stockholm.

“Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives and are used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles,” the Nobel Prize committee said in a statement following the announcement. “Through their work, this year’s Chemistry laureates have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”

Professor Whittingham began developing methods for fossil fuel-free energy technologies starting in the 1970s and discovered a cathode — or a type of electrical conductor through which electrons move — in a lithium battery. His discovery resulted in the first functional lithium battery.

The other two scientists developed new innovations based on that battery.

Professor Goodenough discovered that the cathode would have greater potential if it were made with a different material and showed that cobalt oxide with intercalated lithium ions could produce a higher voltage.

Professor Yoshino then eliminated pure lithium from the battery, instead using only lithium ions, which are safer. He created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.

Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized electronics — and our lives — since they were introduced to the market in 1991. The scientists’ discoveries led to the development of sustainable and renewable batteries that were lightweight enough to make portable electronics a staple of modern life.

The batteries contribute to reducing the impact of climate change by enabling a switch from fossil fuel energy to renewable and sustainable forms.

“Development of these batteries is a huge step forward, so we that we can really store solar and wind energy,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, the chairwoman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

John B. Goodenough is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Even before being awarded the Nobel, he was known for his work that led to the invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

M. Stanley Whittingham is a professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York. On his biography page for the university, he said that his goal was to improve the storage ability of electrochemical devices in order to increase the viability of renewable solar and wind energy, as well to improve the range and cost for electric vehicles.

Akira Yoshino is an honorary fellow for the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan. A profile last year described him as “the father of lithiium-ion batteries,” and he was given the prestigious Japan Prize for his work on the subject.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Professor Yoshino said the news was “amazing” and “surprising.” He said that “curiosity” had been the driving force behind his work, but added that he was pleased that his contributions could help fight climate change.

“Climate change is a very serious issue for humankind,” he said, calling lithium-ion batteries “suitable for a sustainable society.”

The prize last year went to Frances H. Arnold and George P. Smith, both of the United States and Gregory P. Winter of England, for work that tapped the power of evolutionary biology to design molecules with a range of practical uses, such as new drugs, more efficient and less toxic reactions in the manufacture of chemicals, and plant-derived fuels to replace oil, gas and coal extracted from the ground.

Dr. Arnold was only the fifth woman to win the prize.

  • The prize for medicine and physiology was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their work in discovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.

  • The prize for physics went to three scientists who transformed our view of the cosmos: James Peebles, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, shared half of the prize for theories that explained how the universe swirled into galaxies and everything we see in the night sky, and indeed much that we cannot see.

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