3 Win Chemistry Nobel For Development Of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Oct 9, 2019
Originally published on October 9, 2019 10:59 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Nobel Prize for chemistry goes to people whose work in chemistry charges much of our lives. They worked on batteries - lithium-ion batteries in particular, which power anything from phones to electric cars.

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GORAN HANSSON: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: That's the announcement in Sweden that three scientists won the prize for creating our rechargeable world. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us all about the winners. Hi there, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: Who were the winners?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All right. So there's three scientists, including the oldest scientist to ever win a Nobel. There's two in the United States. So John Goodenough from the University of Texas at Austin. He's 97 years old.

INSKEEP: Meaning that I still have decades and decades to get my own Nobel.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's still time.

INSKEEP: I mean, there's time. Go on, go on. Yes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's still time. There's M. Stanley Whittingham from Binghamton University, State University of New York. And then there's also Akira Yoshino, who's a researcher at a corporation in Japan. And as you said, they all won it for work that led to the development of lithium-ion batteries.

INSKEEP: These are so ubiquitous I just picked one up - right? - because I picked up my cellphone here. What's going on here? What'd they develop?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So as the Nobel Prize Committee put it, they said, unlike other batteries that are based on chemical reactions that sort of break down the electrodes, these batteries are based on lithium ions that flow back and forth. And these three scientists solved a number of chemical challenges to make it so that lithium ions can travel in a controlled manner. And the result is that you have this battery that is really lightweight, that makes it truly portable and rechargeable. And I think...

INSKEEP: Oh, because if it was breaking down in a chemical process, like the other batteries you described were, it - you couldn't recharge it; it's dead at the end of all of that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you remember what batteries used to be like?

INSKEEP: Sure.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean (laughter), you know...

INSKEEP: D cells or whatever, yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: People who have not, you know, grown up with batteries, really sort of take lithium-ion batteries for granted. But they weren't on the market until 1991. And so, you know, there are a lot of younger people who have never known a world without these batteries. But the truth is they really revolutionized things. I mean, OK, they occasionally burst into flame, right? We've all heard about that...

INSKEEP: Sure.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Because lithium is highly reactive. But they are so light, and they hold their charge, and you don't have to completely drain the battery before recharging it. I mean, it's just a great battery technology.

INSKEEP: And it's also why my phone can be this small, that it fits in my pocket, right? It would be much larger, bulkier with an older style of battery.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Exactly. So you have them in mobile phones. You have them in laptops. There's medical applications like pacemakers. And then also long-distance electric cars - again, lithium-ion batteries. And, you know, the Nobel Prize Committee clearly thought that the ability to store energy from renewable sources like sun and wind were really affected by this technology. And that's kind of interesting because, you know, it really got started in the 1970s during the oil crisis, when oil companies were trying to diversify their energy activities. And so now, you know, many, you know, years later, it's being thought of in a different kind of way.

INSKEEP: Interesting reminder of how science works, too, because these are three different people sharing the prize, but they're different people in different parts of the world, right? They weren't working together, but they were working on the same problem.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, they kind of picked up problems. Each one made a little step forward, and then the next person picked it up and took it the next way.

INSKEEP: Nell, thanks so much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce with word that three scientists have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on lithium-ion batteries.

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