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Chem Nobel honours work that led to the Li-ion battery

The theme of this year’s Chemistry Nobel was set as ‘A Rechargeable World’.

Given how important battery-storage is for renewable power, leaps in digital, and the future of the automotives, etc, it isn’t a surprise that the Nobel in Chemistry this year, should honour three scientists for their role in the discovery of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries that power significant facets of our high-tech lives. The award this year goes to John B Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, M Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University, with equal shares of the prize money for the three.

While the nickel-cadmium battery, discovered much earlier in 1899, powered most devices, research on Li-ion power storage only took off when Exxon, amidst the global oil crisis, commissioned a study on lithium compounds as an alternative for fossil fuel. Whittingham, one of the researchers with Exxon, created a battery with lithium-ion as the anode and titanium disulphide as the cathode that could be recharged at room temperature. Although Exxon gave up the research as oil prices normalised, Goodenough—the oldest Nobel recipient, at 97—improved the idea by replacing titanium with cobalt oxide, which doubled the output voltage of the battery. Yoshino, then working for Asahi Kasei, which wanted lightweight batteries, further improved upon the idea discarding lithium for carbon-based materials that could hold lithium ions. The battery could not only have a higher output but was also safe as lithium tends to catch fire. What we see today are variations of Yoshino’s designs powering most consumer electronics, mobile phones and tablets.

Although pricing has a lot to do with lithium-ion batteries’ popularity—prices have crashed 85% since 2010, from $1,160/KWh to $176, BloombergNEF reports another 40% reduction to $100 by 2024—a lot has to do with the absence of any competition. Though NiMH batteries are still used in low-powered consumer electronics, lower power and voltage capabilities have ensured that they have a limited scope. More important, with prices falling, lithium has found resonance with large-scale utilities and electric vehicles. Although, in their present form, these cannot provide the kind of solutions the automotive industry needs—cars powered by lithium-ion still can’t breach the 500-mile barrier, and utility storage batteries offer power for just four hours—and companies like Toyota are investing on solid-state batteries for practical solutions, lithium-ion may overpower alternatives because of cost benefits. Take the case of Sila Nanotechnologies. The company raised $170 million from Daimler to create a battery, which holds lithium compounds using silicon rather than graphite. This, it believes, will increase efficiency by 20%—meaning more space to accommodate more batteries in electric cars and thus, longer battery service. Li-ion was successful in powering devices for 4G technologies, but with always-on and connected devices, the technology needs a further upgrade.

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Source: Financial Express