“They created a rechargeable world.” This is how the Nobel Committee described three scientists who are getting the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2019. These are also the three scientists who you can thank for the latest smartphone, whether it is the iPhone 11 or the shiny OnePlus 7T, that you are using. This is because the three scientists just got the award for working on technologies that made lithium ion batteries possible and it is these batteries that are inside the smartphones powering super high-resolution displays and crazy fast processors.
The three scientists who get the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2019 are: John B Goodenough, Akira Yoshino and M Stanley Whittingham. Of these, M Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University in the US was first one to explore the development of dense rechargeable batteries in 1970s. Goodenough of the University of Texas then came up with the idea of using metal oxide for cathode in these batteries in 1980s. In 1985, Yoshino “created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.”
These batteries then took their time before they were packed in gadgets but once in early 1990s the trend started and Japanese companies started producing lithium ion batteries on mass scale, the floodgates opened. Companies like Apple, under Steve Jobs, in late 90s were exploring all the new technologies that were available for devices that would be much more powerful and smaller than the boxy brick like mobiles phones. A part like lithium ion battery, packed densely with energy and rechargeable, was crucial to not only the era of smartphones that arrived in the first decade of this century, but is also crucial for the future as companies like Tesla and Hyundai put them into electric cars.
Talking about the development of the smartphone batteries, the Nobel Committee said: “The result was a lightweight, hardwearing battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated. 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.”
So next time, when you take out your smartphone from your pocket, understand that you hold a gadget in your hand that has Nobel Prize winning technology inside it. The Nobel for Goodenough, Yoshino and Whittingham also shows that the work of scientists often has an impact on the society in a way that may not be apparent immediately when the work appears. In the 70s or 80s, work that these scientists were doing would have seemed not only incremental but also too scientific to be of use to masses. But in just over a decade the work of these three scientists started changing our world, and within three decades has led to a total transformation. Without the work of these three scientists we would not have been carrying a powerful computer in our pockets.
As far as the lithium ion battery technology is concerned, it is slightly old now. With smartphone companies looking to create thinner and more powerful computers, as well as explore different form factors like foldable phones, new battery technologies are needed. Some companies have tried to make the lithium ion batteries more dense by changing their chemical composition. LG succeeded well in this whereas the Samsung Note 7 fiasco showed that it was too dangerous to push absolute limits of this technology. But it is clear that the smartphone industry is now looking for new battery technologies. None of replacement technologies are viable yet but it’s possible that there is working going on technologies that may, 10 or 20 years from now, win Nobel Prize again for creating the battery of future.