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Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded to Developers of Lithium-Ion Batteries

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded to Developers of Lithium-Ion Batteries

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists for their work developing lithium-ion batteries—power sources that touched off a technological revolution that gave rise to cellphones and electric cars.

U.S. engineer

John B. Goodenough,

M. Stanley Whittingham

of the U.K. and

Akira Yoshino

of Japan shared the 9 million Swedish kronor ($906,000) prize awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991,” the academy said.

At age 97, Dr. Goodenough of the University of Texas in Austin who was born in Germany is the oldest Nobel laureate. Four decades ago, he helped invent the battery that is used to charge cellphones, iPads and many other of today’s electronic goods. His work made batteries more powerful and portable by introducing lithium cobalt oxide to their inner workings.

“He still makes contributions to the development of batteries,” said

Olof Ramström,

a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

In the early 1970s, during the oil crisis, Prof. Whittingham worked on fossil-fuel-free energy technologies. He developed the first functional lithium battery, but it was too explosive to be viable, the academy said. Prof. Whittingham is based at Binghamton University in New York state.

Dr. Yoshino invented a battery based purely on lithium ions instead of lithium in 1985. That development made the battery workable in practice, the academy said.

Rather than using reactive lithium in the anode, he used petroleum coke, a carbon material that, like the cathode’s cobalt oxide, can house lithium ions.

This produced a lightweight, longlife battery that could be charged hundreds of times. The battery depends on the flow of lithium ions between the anode and cathode rather than upon chemical reactions that break down the electrodes.

“This battery enabled our mobile world,” said Prof. Ramström. “We now have power anywhere we go.”

Dr. Yoshino is a longtime researcher at Japanese chemical maker

Asahi Kasei Corp.

He said during a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday that one of the hardest times in his career was after the first product featuring his invention was introduced in the 1990s. It took about three years for the product to start selling. “It was really rough both mentally and physically,” he recalled. He didn’t start carrying a cellphone until five years ago. Lightweight smartphones wouldn’t be possible without the small-but-powerful lithium-ion batteries inside.

Lithium-ion batteries can be combined with energy sources that fluctuate over time, such as solar power, to provide a seamless power supply. The batteries have also enabled a switch from fossil-fuel transportation to electric transportation, Prof. Ramström said.

But Dr. Yoshino said much remains unknown about how a lithium-ion battery works and he is enthusiastic about continuing his research. “We have to go back to the foundations of what exactly this thing called lithium is,” he said. “It’s very exciting for me because there are so many enigmas.”

Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article misspelled Binghamton University as Binghampton University. (Oct. 9, 2019)

Write to Joanna Sugden at joanna.sugden@wsj.com and Peter Landers at peter.landers@wsj.com

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