The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry to three scientists who developed lithium-ion batteries, the energy storage systems that have revolutionized portable electronics. Larger examples of the batteries have given rise to electric cars that can be driven on long trips, while the miniaturized versions are used in lifesaving medical devices like cardiac defibrillators.
John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino will share the prize, which is worth about $900,000.
“Lithium-ion batteries are a great example of how chemistry can transform people’s lives,” said Bonnie Charpentier, president of the American Chemical Society. “It’s wonderful to see this work recognized by the Nobel Prize.”
The three researchers’ work in the 1970s and ’80s led to the creation of powerful, lightweight, and rechargeable batteries that might be powering the smartphone or laptop computer that you’re using to read this article today. Lithium-ion batteries are also used in billions of cameras and power tools. Astronauts use them on the International Space Station, and the batteries have improved the prospects of renewable energy. Reducing fossil fuel energy sources can contribute to lessening the impact of climate change.
“Development of these batteries is a huge step forward, so we that we can really store solar and wind energy,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, chairwoman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Goodenough, 97, is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. With the award he becomes the oldest Nobel Prize winner, but he is still active in research.
Whittingham, 77, is a professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
Yoshino, 71, is an honorary fellow for the Asahi Kasei Corp. in Tokyo and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan. He was previously awarded the Japan Prize for his work on lithium-ion batteries.
Goodenough is a former researcher at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, where he worked for about 20 years before leaving in 1976.
During his time at Lincoln Labs in the early 1950s, Goodenough was a major factor in the creation of a new type of RAM — random access memory — technology that started the downsizing of computers from the size of garages to laptops and other small computers available today.
Goodenough is now forever linked to chemistry as his field of study — but none of his academic degrees are in that field. He graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1943 and received a master’s and doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1951 and 1952.
His work that led to the Nobel Prize was conducted at Oxford University in 1979 and 1980 — where he had been hired as the chairman of the university’s Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory in 1976, despite the lack of a chemistry degree.
Goodenough was not in Texas when the Noble was announced — he was in England receiving the Copley Medal, the scientific world’s oldest honor, which has been bestowed on Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Dorothy Hodgkin, the 1964 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.
Goodenough turned 97 this July and reports to work daily at the Austin campus, where his current assignment is as a full-time researcher. He stopped teaching courses just two years ago, said Jianchi Zhou, his longtime colleague at the University of Texas in Austin. On campus, Goodenough is not known so much for his intellect or his groundbreaking research — but his laugh, which is loud and heard frequently throughout the building where he works.
“He laughs all the time. When he is in his office, we can hear his laughing all over the floor,’’ Zhou said in a telephone interview. “That’s how we know he is there.”
For many years, few researchers looked into advancing battery technology because there was no urgent need. But the Arab oil embargo of 1973 made many scientists realize the extent of society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Whittingham, who was working for Exxon at the time, began searching for improved ways to store energy from renewable sources and power electric cars.
He discovered that titanium disulfide, not previously used in batteries, was an extremely energy-rich material that could be used in a battery for its positive electrode, or cathode — think of the side of your battery with the plus sign.
For the negative electrode in his battery — the side with the minus sign — Whittingham decided to test lithium, which is the lightest metal and releases electrons easily. This resulted in the first functional lithium battery.
Unfortunately, Whittingham’s new battery had a problem. When it was repeatedly charged, thin strands of metallic lithium would grow out from the negative electrode. Sometimes, the strands would grow long enough that they reached the cathode and short-circuited the battery, and could cause an explosion.
Goodenough, then at Oxford University, discovered that the cathode would have greater potential if it were made with a different material and showed that cobalt oxide, which had layers to hold pockets of lithium ions, could produce a higher voltage.
Yoshino then eliminated pure lithium from the battery, instead using only lithium ions, which are safer. He created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery for Asahi Kasei Corp. in Japan in 1985, which then started selling the technology in 1991, paving the way for a revolution in portable devices.
Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Yoshino said the news was “amazing” and “surprising.” He said that “curiosity” had been the driving force behind his work, but added that he was pleased that his contributions could help fight climate change.
“Climate change is a very serious issue for humankind,” he said, calling lithium-ion batteries “suitable for a sustainable society.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.