30 October, 2019
The lithium-ion battery has won this year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize. Justin Hodgkiss celebrates the slow and steady speed of technological developments.
Back in the 1970s, when the lithium-ion battery research recognised by the Nobel Prize committee was still in the lab, mobile phones and laptops existed only in our imaginations or science fiction.
Today, chances are you first learned that the lithium-ion battery had won this year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize by reading of it on a device powered by a lithium-ion battery. And that unless your battery goes flat, I’d bet you (along with the rest of us) rarely give the inner workings of the battery much thought. But it deserves our attention for the lessons it teaches us about the way science changes our world.
Lithium-ion batteries have been successful because they’re compact, lightweight, easy to recharge and can hold that charge for extended periods of time. They’ve changed the way we live and work. And their greatest reach may be still to come. We increasingly see the value of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, and as a critical part of a renewable electricity grid, storing energy when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
But lithium has its own challenges. Its supply is limited and there are environmental impacts of lithium mining. So we need to find new ways to recycle the lithium-ions we already have. Chemists within the MacDiarmid Institute are working on the chemistry for recycling lithium-ion batteries, developing ways to not waste the precious lithium-ions already in use in our phones and other devices.