Skip to Content
Climate change

Lithium-ion’s pioneers nabbed the Nobel. Now we need the next battery breakthrough.

October 9, 2019
Tesla is using lithium-ion batteries to build some of the world's biggest grid battery plants.
Tesla is using lithium-ion batteries to build some of the world's biggest grid battery plants.Courtesy: Tesla

As chemistry advances go, few rival the impact of the lithium-ion battery.

The light, compact batteries power much of the modern world, including our smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles and, increasingly, the electricity system. On Wednesday, three scientists who played major roles in the technology’s development won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, splitting the more than $900,000 award.

Background: To make really energy-dense batteries that work well in portable products, you need a light and highly reactive material. Lithium nicely fits the bill: it’s the lightest solid element and readily relinquishes its electrons, the negative charged particles that create an electric current as they flow between a battery’s electrodes, explained the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The details: The Nobel committee awarded the prize to Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, who “developed the first functional lithium battery” in the early 1970s; John Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, who “doubled the battery’s potential” in 1980; and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University, who helped make the fire-prone batteries safer in 1985 by switching from pure lithium to lithium ions, which carry a net charge thanks to missing or extra electrons.

Improved safety was the key to making the batteries a commercial product. Sony and Asahi Kasei first produced the batteries in 1991. They quickly found their way into camcorders, computers, MP3 players, mobile phones, and more. The price and performance of the batteries have continued to improve as demand and manufacturing rapidly expanded, consistently exceeding expectations of academia and industry.

But … There are still limits to what lithium-ion batteries can do, and ongoing issues with safety. Their costs still need to fall further to narrow the price difference between EVs and gas-powered vehicles, and they’re still not light or powerful enough to electrify most of the trucking, shipping, and aviation industries. Finally, most battery experts say we’re going to need entirely different chemistries for energy storage that will be cheap and long-lasting enough to balance out the fluctuations in solar and wind power as they come to dominate the electricity grid.

Deep Dive

Climate change

These three charts show who is most to blame for climate change

Getting to the bottom of which countries have contributed most to climate change is complicated, but a few pieces of data can help.

Inside Alphabet X’s new effort to combat climate change with seagrass

A previously unrevealed program would use cameras, computer vision, and machine learning to track the carbon stored in the biomass of the oceans.

Super-hot salt could be coming to a battery near you

New battery chemistries can help unlock more renewable energy for the grid.

Power beaming comes of age

How power beaming could change the way we power everything from satellites to mobile phones and reduce carbon emissions.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.