While the Nobel prizes can sometimes dive into foundational but seemingly rarified corners of the sciences, Wednesday morning’s announcement of the prize for chemistry reached into billions of people’s pockets—and homes, offices, workshops, cars … pretty much the entire infrastructure of modern life. For their invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, key to everything from mobile phones to electric cars, John B. Goodenough of U Texas Austin, M. Stanley Wittingham of SUNY Binghamton, and Akira Yoshino of Miejo University will take home medals and a share of $906,000.
“Amazing. Surprising,” Yoshino said by phone at the press conference announcing the prize. Which, sure, maybe, though a September panel sponsored by the American Chemical Society predicted a win for Goodenough and lithium-ion rechargeables; he and the tech have been a longtime favorite. (The genome-editing technology Crispr was a dark horse.)
“I don’t know if they had been waiting for the news for years, but they were very happy,” said Göran Hansson, a physician and member of the Nobel Committee, of Wittingham and Yoshino. The committee hadn’t yet reached Goodenough, Hansson said, who at 97 years old becomes the oldest living Nobel laureate.
Lithium-ion batteries have become a staple in modern electronics. Introduced commercially in 1991, their light weight and high energy efficiency let electronics manufacturers stuff them into mobile phones, portable computers, and cameras. But since the batteries are also stackable into large arrays and can undergo hundreds of discharge-charge cycles, they’re also at the heart of electric bikes and cars like Priuses and Teslas, and they have become dependable parts of sustainable, green energy. Sources of energy like wind or solar don’t emit planet-killing greenhouse gases, but they’re less dependable than fuels derived from oil. Lithium-ion batteries can charge when the wind turns turbines and the sun drops photons on photoelectric cells, and then discharge when they don’t—maintaining even distribution on the electrical grid. One estimate puts the size of the world market at $36 billion, with the possibility of hitting almost $110 billion by 2026.
All batteries work roughly the same way. Electrons flow from a negative electrode called an anode through a material, often a liquid, called an electrolyte, to a positive electrode, the cathode. Pump that flow through a circuit and it’ll power a device. In the mid-1970s, Wittingham—then working for Exxon—figured out how to use the ultralight, highly reactive metal lithium in the anode. That was great; not only does lithium readily give up electrons, but applying charge to the new battery would restore them. Unfortunately, that version of the battery also tended to blow up.