Why the Inventors of Lithium-ion Batteries Won a Nobel Prize

lithium-ion batteries power most technology we use today

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The three scientists who invented lithium-ion batteries won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, CNBC reported. The revolutionary rechargeable batteries have powered a wide range of electronics since their invention in 1991. It was a long road from early energy storage.

Lithium battery pack close up
Lithium-ion batteries power a wide range of electronic devices that are now commonplace in everyday usage. Photo by Olivier Le Moal / Shutterstock

According to the CNBC article, John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino will split the $900,000 USD prize money for their creation of the lithium-ion battery. This same kind of battery powers smartphones, electric cars, and countless other electrical devices we use every day. It received a glowing endorsement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who rewarded the three men the prize for their life-changing invention and released a statement last week saying the battery “laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.” Energy storage began centuries ago and has evolved considerably since then.

Volta and Galvani

Around the same time that Benjamin Franklin was experimenting with a key on a kite string, two Italian scientists became the fathers of electrochemistry—Alessandro Volta and Luigi Galvani.

“Galvani had placed the legs of recently dissected frogs on brass hooks for obervation,” said Dr. Ron B. Davis, Jr., Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry at Georgetown University. “Galvani noticed that when he touched the brass hook with a probe made of a different metal, the legs twitched. Galvani knew that electrical impulses were associated with muscle contraction, and his conclusion was that he had tapped a new form of electricity—one generated by the muscles in the frogs’ legs themselves.”

Of course, Galvani was incorrect, as was first suggested by Volta. Volta believed the legs twitched in response to being stimulated by an external current, which was generated by two different metals touching each other. In order to prove Galvani that the legs weren’t the conductors, he had to make a source that could create current with no biological components involved—a battery.

“Volta piled alternating discs of silver and zinc, each separated by a disc of leather, cardboard, or some other insulating material,” Dr. Davis said. “The separating material was soaked in a solution of salt before being placed into the pile. And when the top of the pile was connected to the bottom with a conductive wire, an electrical current could be observed flowing from one end to the other.”

It was, Dr. Davis said, the first real example of sustained, steady electrical current produced under controlled conditions. Volta had built the world’s first battery.

Planté’s Lead-Acid Battery

In the early 1900s, gasoline engines in automobiles needed to be hand-cranked to start, which drivers found unappealing. The electric starter motor was invented to fix that problem, leaving behind the hand-cranked gasoline engine for good.

“The foundations of that shift were laid nearly a half century earlier in 1859 when a Frenchman by the name of Gaston Planté built the first lead-acid battery,” Dr. Davis said. “Planté simply took two sheets of lead, placed a cloth in between them, and rolled them into a spiral. This spiral was then placed into a jar of diluted sulfuric acid, and each sheet of lead was connected to a wire.”

Volta’s “voltaic piles” of metal discs depended on its electrodes supporting two different “half-reactions,” thus creating the electrical current. Planté’s electrodes both connected to lead, so they produced no voltage whatsoever. However, they did something else remarkable.

“Planté’s battery was not ingenious because it could create electricity like a voltaic pile, but rather because it could be charged using an external voltage and then discharged at will,” Dr. Davis said. When Planté placed a prepared voltage on his electrodes, they made hydrogen at the cathode and oxygen at the anode. The oxygen reacted with the lead to form lead oxide.

“With a lead-oxide plate for one electrode and pure lead for the other, we have all the makings of a battery—a cathode, an anode, and a medium for the transmission of ions,” Dr. Davis said. “Modern versions of Planté’s brainchild are often manufactured with a lead oxide layer pre-applied to one of the plates within a cell, eliminating the need for the electrolytic conditioning that Planté relied on to achieve the chemistry he wanted.

“In most other ways, the sealed batteries that you might buy at the auto parts store in your neighborhood are made of the same materials that Planté first mixed about a century and a half ago.”

Dr. Ron B. Davis, Jr., contributed to this article. Dr. Davis is an Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry at Georgetown University, where he has been teaching introductory organic chemistry laboratories since 2008. He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University.