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Chemistry Nobel Hails Work on Batteries That Changed Society

Elisabeth Behrmann and Veronica Ek

(Bloomberg) -- The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to a trio of pioneers of the modern lithium-ion battery, which is revolutionizing everything from mobile phones to the future of the global car industry.

The prize went to M. Stanley Whittingham, a British-American professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton; Japan’s Akira Yoshino, of Asahi Kasei Corp. and Meijo University; and German-born John Goodenough, professor at the University of Texas.

Such batteries have “revolutionized our lives” since they first entered the market in 1991, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement on Wednesday. “They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”

“This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles,” the academy said. “It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.”

Whittingham, 77, first discovered in the 1970s it was possible to shuttle lithium atoms from one electrode to another at room temperature, facilitating recharge-ability. When the battery material -- lithium -- proved prone to catching fire, it took the work of Goodenough, 97, to make it into a usable device. Yoshino’s research on ensuring chemical stability crowned the current lithium-ion battery.

The product “is changing the way we do many things, the way we interact with each other and the physical environment, the way we consume energy,” said Colin McKerracher, an analyst at BloombergNEF. “The amount of interaction you have is only going to go up from here.”

Oil Crisis

Research on better stores of energy started in the early 1970s amid the oil crisis. Working with Exxon Mobil Corp., Whittingham decided to test lithium in anodes, the ‘minus’ side of a battery. Exxon showcased his invention in watches in 1977, but the batteries kept igniting when built larger.

After oil prices slid back, the urgency of developing new battery technology faded. Then-President Ronald Reagan canceled support for energy projects, and while other governments followed suit, work in Japan continued.

In the 1980s, Yoshino, focusing on the problem of chemical stability, managed to combine Goodenough’s advances using cobalt oxide in a battery’s cathode with a carbon anode, which helped boost voltage and therefore the battery’s potential.

Yoshino’s work enabled Sony Corp. to release a lithium-ion battery for small electronic devices in 1991 -- jump-starting small recording devices and other electronics.

“As a researcher, you need to have a flexible mind, but at the same time, very obsessive, persistent thinking, without giving up. You need these two things,” Yoshino, 71, said at a news conference in Japan. “I have to say I feel more confused than happy.”

Attempting to pack energy into an ever-smaller and rechargeable carrier has continued since then to reach into more and more industries. The transport sector is about to enter a new era thanks to batteries that are small and powerful enough to make electric vehicles practical, helping to clean up city centers and lower overall carbon emissions.

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The total amount for each of the 2019 prizes is 9 million kronor ($906,000).

(Updates with comment from Yoshino in 10th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Dimitra Kessenides, Reed Stevenson and Hanna Hoikkala.

To contact the reporters on this story: Elisabeth Behrmann in Munich at ebehrmann1@bloomberg.net;Veronica Ek in Stockholm at vek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kenneth Wong at kwong11@bloomberg.net, Frank Connelly, Thomas Pfeiffer

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