Battery pioneers who made mobile revolution possible win Nobel chemistry prize
Lithium-ion energy storage science has also become central to efforts to fight climate change
Stockholm/London — Three scientists won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for putting power in people’s pockets by developing rechargeable lithium-ion batteries which made the global information technology, mobile and fossil fuel-free revolutions possible.
American John Goodenough, at 97, became the oldest winner of a Nobel prize and shares the 9-million krona ($906,000) award equally with Stanley Whittingham from Britain and Akira Yoshino of Japan, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Nobel committee said on Wednesday.
“Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the committee said.
With peals of infectious laughter, Goodenough asked reporters at a hastily called news conference in London to speak up with their questions so that his “old ears” could hear. He had not been expecting to win a Nobel prize, he said, but was “very happy” to get it.
“Life is full of surprises,” he said after popping a bottle of champagne in celebration.
After Whittingham developed the first functional lithium battery in the early 1970s, Goodenough doubled the battery’s potential in the next decade. Yoshino then eliminated pure lithium from the battery, making it much safer to use.
Speaking on Japanese TV after hearing of his win, a smiling Yoshino said he was glad to have helped the environment. “I am happy that the lithium-ion battery won the prize in that context,” he said, adding that he also hoped it would inspire others: “I hope this will become an encouragement for young researchers.”
Gregory Offer, an expert in mechanical engineering at Imperial College London, said the scientists’ work had led to “one of the key enabling technologies” of the 21st century. “They have already underpinned the mobile revolution, and are now essential to help us solve the problem of climate change by electrifying transport and storing renewable electricity generation,” he said in an e-mailed comment.
Paul Coxon, a materials science expert from Britain’s Cambridge University, said lithium-ion batteries are now “the hidden workhorses of the mobile era”.
“All three Nobel winners played vital roles in this energy storage revolution which has now placed power in our pockets,” he said. “It’s a wonderful example of taking research from the lab. We can literally hold the result in our hands.” The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were created and funded in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901.
The Nobel prizes for medicine and physics were awarded earlier this week. The awards for literature, peace and economics will be announced in the next few days.