Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to development of rechargeable batteries

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The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to chemists who developed the rechargeable batteries that power modern society. Three scientists share the prize: John Goodenough, of the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham, of the State University of New York at Binghamton, and Akira Yoshino, of Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan.

The chemists developed lithium-ion batteries, the lightweight, rechargeable batteries that power cell phones, laptops, and electric cars. “This battery has had a dramatic impact on our society,” said Olof Ramström, a chemist at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, during the announcement of the award.

In the 1970s, during the oil crisis, Whittingham searched for energy-storing materials that didn’t use fossil fuels. He developed a battery with a lithium metal electrode, the anode, which releases electrons. He made the other electrode, the cathode, of titanium disulfide, which has spaces that house lithium ions.

Goodenough went on to improve the cathode’s ability to store charge. In 1980, he discovered that cobalt oxide with lithium ions can produce as much as 4 volts. (At 97, Goodenough is the oldest scientist to win the Nobel and is still working. “He still goes to the lab every day and makes a contribution to the field,” Ramström said. Researchers have predicted his win for years.)

Because lithium metal is highly reactive, catching fire even when exposed to moisture in the air, Yoshino looked for an alternative. In 1985, he created the first commercial product: a lithium-ion battery that used a carbon-based anode housing lithium ions.

Through the laureates’ work, “We have gained access to a technological revolution: truly portable electronics,” said Sara Snogerup Linse of Lund University in Sweden.

The Nobel prizes have been criticized in recent years for rewarding too few women. This is the final science Nobel announcement for 2019; all nine laureates this year are men.

This is a developing story.

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