The 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Every day we tap away on our phones and type rapidly on our computers. When the battery is depleted, the solution is simple: just plug your device into a nearby outlet with a charging wire. There’s no need to whip out your box of batteries and undergo the tedious process of unscrewing a panel to replace them. We never (or at least I don’t) really reflect on how this common feature of modern-day electronics is possible.
Thanks to Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino, we have the luxury of blissful unawareness as our devices charge fully in just a few hours. They received the Nobel Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on October 9 “for the development of lithium-ion batteries” [1].
Here’s a quick, unprofessional summary of how batteries work. Batteries consist of metallic electrodes and an electrolyte. The positive electrode is called a cathode, the negative an anode. The electrolyte acts as a buffer so that electrons don’t flow directly from the negative to the positive terminal. Instead, electrons from the anode flow to the cathode through a longer, outside path called a circuit. When the chemicals in the anode and cathode are completely changed through this process, the battery charge is depleted. When you recharge the battery, the process happens in reverse: the electrons flow back to the anode, restoring both sides to their original states. [2]
Initially, Whittingham sought to develop methods devoid of fossil-fuel technology during the oil crisis of the 1970’s. He discovered titanium disulfide, a compound that has the ability to house lithium ions between molecules. Lithium seemed ideal because its need to give up electrons makes it energy-rich, so he created an anode with lithium metal in it. It had an electric potential of two volts, which is pretty good. However, metallic lithium is very reactive and explodes easily, so the battery didn’t seem like a great solution. Its prospect was still better than the lead-acid batteries of the day though.
Then Goodenough realized that lithium batteries would have even greater energy potential if a metal oxide was used instead of a metal sulfide. He was right. He used cobalt oxide instead of titanium disulfide and the resulting battery had a potential of over four volts!
Yoshino made the final important discovery. Using a carbon-based compound called petroleum coke to intercalate lithium ions, not lithium metal, made the battery stable enough to be released in the market [1&3].
Lithium-ion batteries are great because they are lightweight. If you look at the periodic table, you will see that lithium has a lower atomic weight compared to some other metals like lead. Additionally, lithium ions do not depend on chemical reactions that wear out electrodes because they just flow back and forth between them. The ability for them to flow back and forth, not just in one direction, is what lets the battery be recharged, giving it longevity. They can last for as long as two to three years, a huge upgrade from nickel-cadmium and lead-acid batteries. They are more environmentally friendly because they stay away from fossil-fuel technology and can potentially even utilize solar energy.
Unfortunately, this marvelous innovation is not without its drawbacks. Lithium batteries can still explode, even if that characteristic is less common. An infamous example is the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 released in 2016 [4]. Once lithium ions degenerate, they are useless and most lithium batteries are not recycled [4]. Worse, lithium mining, commonly done in South America, is grueling work and detrimental to the environment [3]. Its need will increase as more applications of the battery arrive. Scientists are trying to develop a safer, more labor- and-environment-friendly battery that could last longer, but the fruit of their labor is yet to be seen.
Regardless, the lithium-ion battery is a major development that affects most of us daily. It is thanks to these three scientists that some technologies are more accessible today than ever before.

[1]The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019. Nobel Media AB 2019. Sat. 19 Oct 2019.