In the late 1970s, a team of global scientists began developing what would become the lithium-ion battery, a type of rechargeable battery that would eventually power everything from portable electronics to electric vehicles and mobile phones.
This week, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded to three scientists, John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino, for their work in developing this battery.
According to the official Nobel Prize organization, “this lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles. It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.”
The History of the Lithium-Ion Battery
During the oil crisis in the 1970s, Stanley Whittingham, an English chemist working for Exxon mobile at the time, started exploring the idea of a new battery – one that could recharge on its own in a short amount of time and perhaps lead to fossil-free energy one day.
In his first attempt, he tried using titanium disulfide and lithium metal as the electrodes, but the combination posed several challenges, including serious safety concerns. After the batteries short-circuited and caught on fire, Exxon decided to halt the experiment.
However, John B. Goodenough, currently an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, had another idea. In the 1980s, he experimented using lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode instead of titanium disulfide, which paid off: the battery doubled its energy potential.
Five years later, Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, made another swap. Instead of using reactive lithium metal as anode, he tried using a carbonaceous material, petroleum coke, which led to a revolutionary finding: not only was the new battery significantly safer without lithium metal, the battery performance was more stable, thus producing the first prototype of the lithium-ion battery.
Together, these three discoveries led to the lithium-ion battery as we know it.
Building a Better Battery with Electron Microscopy and Spectroscopy
Although the market for lithium-ion batteries continues to grow at double-digit rates, the challenge is developing batteries that are safer, longer-lasting, and higher energy density. To help with this research, many scientists are turning to various analytical techniques to study battery components at different stages of their lifecycle.
Using imaging techniques such as, microCT and electron microscopy, scientists can create 2D and 3D images, allowing them to see the battery in full length scale, from the cell level down to the atomic level. From here, they can develop fundamental understanding of the battery materials from the microstructural information extracted from images.
To study the evolution of materials structural and composition changes as well as defect formations, scientists turn to spectroscopy, such as Raman, NMR, X-ray diffraction and mass spectrometry. Using these techniques, researchers can analyze the electrode materials as they charge and give information they wouldn’t otherwise see.
Continuing the Quest for Longer-Lasting, Higher Energy Density Batteries
Universities and businesses around the globe continue to explore ways to create batteries that are safer, more powerful, last longer, and perform even under severe weather conditions.
Researchers at UC San Diego, for example, are trying to improve the energy density of the lithium-ion battery by adding silicon to the anode. They are also developing a battery that can operate in temperatures as cold as -76° F, compared to the current limit of -4° F for lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized modern day living. As Whittingham said at a recent conference, “Lithium batteries have impacted the lives of almost everyone in the world.” He’s still working on battery research, and we’re excited to see how the Nobel Prize win helps drives the industry forward.
Congratulations to all three winners!
- Advancing Lithium-Ion Battery Technology with 3D Imaging
- Building a Better Battery With MicroCT
- UC San Diego Works to Build Batteries of the Future
- Battery/Energy Storage Analysis
- “Electrical Energy Storage and Intercalation Chemistry” | Science
- Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries | Washington Post
- The history and development of batteries | Phys.org
- Press release: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 | The Nobel Prize Organization
To learn more about how electron microscopy is being used to develop new batteries, click here to speak with an expert.
Zhao Liu is a business development manager, electron microscopy at Thermo Fisher Scientific.