A real photo from the Nobel Prize ceremony
A real photo from the Nobel Prize ceremony

ScienceOctober 27, 2019

After decades of service, the lithium-ion battery has won a Nobel Prize

A real photo from the Nobel Prize ceremony
A real photo from the Nobel Prize ceremony

The lithium-ion battery has won this year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize. Justin Hodgkiss celebrates the slow and steady speed of technological developments.  

Back in the 1970s, when the lithium-ion battery research recognised by the Nobel Prize committee was still in the lab, mobile phones and laptops existed only in our imaginations or science fiction. 

Today, chances are you first learned that the lithium-ion battery had won this year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize by reading of it on a device powered by a lithium-ion battery. And that unless your battery goes flat, I’d bet you (along with the rest of us) rarely give the inner workings of the battery much thought. But it deserves our attention for the lessons it teaches us about the way science changes our world. 

Lithium-ion batteries have been successful because they’re compact, lightweight, easy to recharge and can hold that charge for extended periods of time. They’ve changed the way we live and work. And their greatest reach may be still to come. We increasingly see the value of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, and as a critical part of a renewable electricity grid, storing energy when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.  

But lithium has its own challenges. Its supply is limited and there are environmental impacts of lithium mining. So we need to find new ways to recycle the lithium-ions we already have. Chemists within the MacDiarmid Institute are working on the chemistry for recycling lithium-ion batteries, developing ways to not waste the precious lithium-ions already in use in our phones and other devices. 

Many lithium-ion batteries use cobalt, which is not only toxic but its mining is linked to human rights abuses. To combat this, New Zealand researchers are working on developing lithium-ion-inspired batteries made from cheap, earth abundant elements like aluminium, and other sustainable and scalable battery technologies. These alternatives can be used widely, from your phone through to EVs and large scale grid storage.

But it might not be quick. As this Nobel prize story tells us, it took decades for the first lab discoveries of lithium-ion batteries to make their way through to widespread application. 

First, scientists needed to understand exactly how ions move in these porous electrode materials, how densely they pack when the battery is charged, and what limits the voltage of a battery cell. There was no guarantee that this knowledge would ever lead to the development of transformative technology like the battery, but we know for sure that today’s technology could not exist without that foundation of basic research.

For humanity to have a future on this planet, we’ll need disruptive new technologies that reverse the pressure we’ve been putting on the earth. This prize for lithium-ion batteries puts the spotlight on deep research – the type that doesn’t see the light of day for quite some time, but when it does, the impact it has can be enormous. 

For us to now have the kinds of devices I’m writing on and that you’re probably reading this on, we needed the deep and innovative research that Nobel prizes reward. And we needed it underway four decades ago. Similarly, if we want the ‘science fiction’ future of our imaginations, we need to be doing basic research now. While the timescales of basic research tend to be longer, the rewards are often greater, as this prize acknowledges.

Today we are desperate to use lithium-ion batteries to help us cope with the climate crisis we’re facing. And it’s interesting to reflect that the discoveries of Whittingham, Goodenough and Yoshino were also made at a time of great upheaval – during the 1970s oil crisis, where we worried about global security, and researchers around the world were focussed on developing fossil free technologies. 

Fast forward to today, and the crisis is no longer about the demise of a single resource, such as fossil fuels, but the loss of a singular resource – a liveable planet. Once again, we are looking to science for solutions, and it’s never been more urgent for research to focus on renewable sources of energy, and ways to store this energy more sustainably. Batteries are going to have to play a big role, as will renewable energy sources such as solar.  

Perhaps we will not fully appreciate the impact of basic energy research happening today until we hear who receives the 2050 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

This content was created in paid partnership with the MacDiarmid Institute. Learn more about our partnerships here

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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