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 smart phones, laptops, 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 due 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 ones, 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.



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