From smartphones to laptops, most of the portable devices that we use today to study, work, communicate, listen to music and search for information are powered by the lightweight and rechargeable lithium-ion battery. These modern conveniences are only possible because of the groundbreaking work of Professor Stanley Whittingham, who created the first functional lithium-ion battery in 1976.
In the early 1970s, the only rechargeable batteries were lead-acid ones, which are still used today but are bulky and heavy, and nickel-cadmium ones, which were more compact but less efficient. During and after the 1973 oil crisis, many scientists, including Prof Whittingham, searched for better ways to store energy from renewable sources.
Knowing that lithium would make a good battery anode because of its lightness and ability to release electrons easily, Prof Whittingham looked for materials with a high energy density that could act as the cathode, eventually selecting titanium disulphide, which had never been used in batteries before, and producing the first functional lithium-ion battery.
When Prof Whittingham won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 alongside two other scientists for their work on the development of the lithium-ion battery, the Nobel Prize committee said: “Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market… They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.”
Since Prof Whittingham’s breakthrough, he has continued to research ways to improve the battery. Part of his ongoing work focuses on eliminating cobalt from the battery, since it is expensive, and its mining is associated with child labour issues. He has also called for more sustainable supply chains for the battery’s materials.
He is a Team Lead in the Battery500 consortium, which aims to create lithium-metal anode batteries that deliver up to 500 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). It has achieved 400 Wh/kg ones. “That’s not commercial yet, but it shows we can get to higher energy densities,” he said.
Prof Whittingham is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Binghamton University and Director of its NorthEast Centre for Chemical Energy Storage. His other honours include the 2010 Award for Lifetime Contributions from the American Chemical Society and 2018 David Turnbull Lectureship Award.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry