The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is one of the most celebrated awards in science. This year, it was awarded to John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for developing the lithium-ion battery.
The work they did in the 1970s and 80s has revolutionised our world.
WHAT IS A LITHIUM-ION BATTERY?
A battery is a device that stores electrical energy.
Batteries store energy by controlling the movement of metal ions (a metal ion is formed when an atom of metal loses electrons). There are many types of battery and each one works in a slightly different way.
Lithium-ion batteries control the flow of lithium ions across a short, chemical barrier. Just like a dam stops water flowing downhill, a charged battery holds back lithium ions on one side of this barrier.
If a small hole was opened in the dam, water would rush out and flow downhill. If we put a wheel next to the hole the water would push against it and turn it. The energy held by the dam would be used to turn the wheel. This could then be used to do something useful, like rotate a fan or grind grain.
In a similar way, when the battery is placed in a circuit, the ions are allowed to move across the barrier. The energy released by their movement is then used by the circuit to do something useful, like turning on a light or powering a phone!
Eventually, all of the ions will cross the barrier and the battery will have run out of charge.
WHY ARE LITHIUM-ION BATTERIES SPECIAL?
Lithium-ion batteries have numerous advantages:
They are rechargeable. Some batteries cannot be recharged and will need to be disposed of immediately after use. Lithium-ion batteries can be easily recharged thousands of times.
They are lightweight. Lithium is the lightest metal making the batteries convenient and portable.
They have high energy density. This means they can hold more energy than other batteries of the same size.
WHY WERE THEY SO IMPORTANT?
Lithium-ion batteries allowed electronic devices to become portable. Most modern phones, almost all electric vehicles and many devices like pumps and pacemakers all rely on lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries have also made renewable energy sources far more efficient. We cannot control when renewable energy sources produce energy. Solar power only produces energy on clear days; wind power only produces energy when the wind blows. Without an efficient battery to store it, any energy produced when it is not needed would be wasted. The lithium ion battery thus lead to a significant increase in the use of renewable energy.
The global impact of the lithium ion battery undeniably deserves its Nobel Prize and shows how one scientific discovery can change the world!