From smartphones to laptops, most electronic devices today rely on lightweight, powerful, and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Such batteries would not be possible without the pioneering work of Professor Stanley Whittingham, who developed the first functional lithium-ion battery in 1976.
When Professor Whittingham was a scientist in oil and gas company Exxon (now ExxonMobil) in the early 1970s, the only rechargeable batteries were lead-acid ones, which are still used in vehicles today but are bulky and heavy, and nickel-cadmium ones, which were more compact but less efficient. The 1973 oil crisis spurred many scientists, including Professor Whittingham, to look for better ways to store energy from renewable sources.
With the knowledge that lithium would make a good anode because of its lightness and ability to release electrons easily, Professor Whittingham searched for materials with a high energy density that could act as the cathode, eventually settling on titanium disulphide, which had never been used in batteries, and producing the first functional lithium-ion battery.
“The big advantage of this technology was that lithium-ion stored about 10 times as much energy as lead-acid and five times as much as nickel-cadmium,” he said, adding that the new batteries were very light and required little maintenance. Other scientists improved upon Professor Whittingham’s design, resulting in the batteries that are widely used today.
When Professor Whittingham won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with two other scientists for their contributions to the development of the lithium-ion battery, the Nobel Prize committee noted: “This rechargeable battery laid the foundation of wireless electronics, and makes a fossil fuel-free world possible.”
Even today, Professor Whittingham is researching ways to further improve batteries, including through his work as a team lead in the Battery500 consortium which aims to create next-generation lithium-metal anode batteries that can deliver up to 500 watt-hours per kilogram. He is also a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Binghamton University and Director of its NorthEast Centre for Chemical Energy Storage.
He holds 16 patents and has co-written five books. Apart from the Nobel Prize, he has been conferred the Award for Lifetime Contributions from the American Chemical Society and David Turnbull Lectureship Award from the Materials Research Society, among other prizes.