Lithium-Ion and the Nobel prize

The lithium-ion battery is one of the most common energy storage entities in the world. Lithium-ion batteries are the driving forces behind several devices and machines from cell phones to laptop computers, electric vehicles to industrial tools. The revolution of lithium-ion battery that began in the 1970s has culminated into three chemists being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2019 – Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino. The members of the Nobel committee 2019 cited the immense impact of contributions of all the three chemists in serving mankind.

The Who’s Who of lithium-ion research

Stanley Whittingham is a professor at the State University of New York and was formerly with the Oxford University. He is considered to be the pioneer of the lithium-ion battery. John Goodenough is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. At 97, Goodenough has become the oldest to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Akira Yoshino works for the Japanese chemical firm Asahi Kasei Corporation and is a professor at the Meijo University in Nagoya. Yoshino perfected the present-day lithium-ion batteries.

Evolution of the lithium-ion battery

The global oil crisis in the 1970s prompted scientists to rank up research on non-conventional non-fossil fuel-based energy sources. Stanley Whittingham, then working for Exxon, began researching on energy storage techniques. His particular interest in superconductors led towards experiments in developing better batteries. He used lithium, the lightest metal, as anode owing to its affinity to release electrons readily and positively charged ions. He incorporated titanium disulfide as the cathode, packed in the layers and capable of housing lithium ions released from the anode. With 2 volts of output, what Whittingham developed can be regarded as the first lithium-based battery. The lithium battery had the capability of storing 10 times more energy than lead-acid batteries.

The lithium batteries created by Whittingham had its issues. After a few cycles of recharging and discharging, strands of lithium would grow from the anode which upon touching the cathode would cause the battery to be short-circuited. John Goodenough built upon Whittingham’s developments and found that cobalt oxide can be a better cathode than titanium disulfide. The fact that cobalt oxide cathode could accommodate more lithium ions within its layers helped in doubling the voltage potential of the lithium battery. Goodenough’s efforts increased the battery output to 4 volts. It is noteworthy that several smartphones today use lithium-ion batteries with 4 volts of power output.

Akira Yoshino later replaced the metallic lithium anode with layered petroleum coke, which had the capacity of holding more number of lithium ions. The removal of lithium metal from the battery did away with the danger of combustion or explosion as lithium burns when exposed to air. Yoshino’s findings made the lithium-ion battery more lightweight, safer and durable. The first commercial lithium-ion batteries appeared in 1991.

Flaws and future

Lithium-ion batteries have undoubtedly been a huge revolution of the century. But these are not without flaws which need to be ironed out. Like any other battery system, lithium-ion batteries have a limited recharge-discharge cycle. Defective fabrication of the batteries can cause short-circuit and explosions. The widespread instances of issues with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone batteries highlight the risk of lithium-ion batteries. Sources of lithium are limited in nature and increased usage of lithium-ion batteries might exhaust the lithium sources in the near future.

Ongoing researches on incorporating novel materials in the lithium-ion battery promise to shun out the existing issues like safety and charging speed. One such innovation hinges on the fact that lithium-ion batteries, when charged at optimum temperatures, will not degrade easily. Termed as a self-heating battery, the new approach includes a nickel foil in the battery setup that increases battery life as well as charging speed. Another research uses light irradiation to increase the charging speed of lithium-ion batteries. It has been found that charging rates of batteries can be enhanced by exposing the electrodes to a concentrated light.

Environmental pressure might also pave the way for replacement of lithium-ion batteries in the future with batteries equipped with smart materials. Scientists claim to have developed a fully-rechargeable lithium-carbon dioxide battery that is 7 times more efficient than the existing lithium-ion batteries.

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