John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University received the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry, as announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. The Swedish academy rewarded the work of the three scientists for their work developing the lithium-ion battery, at once an enabler and a symbol of renewable energy.

“They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the academy said.

The research that led to the rechargeable lithium-ion battery began during the oil crisis of the 1970s. A revolution to store electricity and use it as needed, made possible thanks to the ability of lithium-ions to have a huge global potential in terms of reducing carbon emissions and energy sustainability.

Lithium-ion batteries required several years of theoretical and experimental study before being marketed. Currently, lithium and cobalt oxide, graphite, and lithium iron phosphate are still the three main components of these batteries on the market. The first to start working on lithium-ion batteries was Whittingham, who worked in the field on behalf of Exxon.

The lack of practicality made other experiments difficult, and hence the arrival on the scene of Goodenough. With his work, lithium-ion batteries began to regain interest. During the eighties, Goodenough, in fact, realized that changing the constitution of the cathode could have increased the power of the batteries.

Akira Yoshino, the third recipient, succeeded in creating a stable, light, and safe product, ready from the mid-1980s to represent a reference point for electronic commerce.

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Figure 1: John B. Goodenough [left], M. Stanley Whittingham [center], and Akira Yoshino [right] (Photo: IEEE Spectrum)

Lithium ions are particles with a free positive charge, in two varieties of isotopes 6Li and 7Li that can easily react with other elements. Lithium-ion batteries are lighter and more compact than the equivalent ones made with other chemical components. They allow storing more energy in the same space. They do not suffer from memory effect, which would limit their duration due to the loss of capacity. Moreover, they allow maintaining a charge for a prolonged time also thanks to the support of an efficient power management solution offered by microelectronics.

Lithium-ion batteries are indispensable today when talking about the quality of life for people in the modern society. The physical characteristics of this technology have allowed the development of the high-tech world, especially in the wearable medical field, with the increase in the market of new portable solutions in a new real-time health ecosystem. It can also be easily defined as a dominant technology widely used in portable electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets. In the aerospace sector, on-board engineers rely on this technology by using the energy harvesting process with solar energy and storing this energy in the batteries.

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Galileo lithium-ion battery [Source: ESA]

State-of-the-art and immediately available "energy harvesting" technologies produce power levels of the milliwatt order in typical operating conditions. Although these levels may appear to be limiting, the development of battery technology over several years has made it possible to be largely compatible in terms of cost per unit of energy supplied.

IoT applications tend to have power requirements with a high-efficiency requirement. The average power required for remote monitoring devices is generally very low, with the occasional need to measure and transmit data in burst mode. The ideal lithium-ion battery for such applications would, therefore, guarantee full support for energy harvesting where needed and if available.

Even beyond this application, today, lithium-ion batteries are increasingly the preferred option when it comes to the emerging field of electric vehicles. Tesla, for example, uses them in its electric vehicles, as they ensure strong weight reduction with a further improvement in energy efficiency.

When it comes to electric cars, everyone is awaiting a big technological leap in the field of batteries which, from some points of view, has already happened with the lithium-ion battery. We will have to invest in improvement, keeping the creation of alternative technologies under control. The most promising are solid-state lithium batteries.

Many automotive companies are investing billions of dollars to increase energy capacity by drastically reducing costs. Increasing power density, durability, costs, charging time, and safety are the main challenges that researchers will face in the coming years. The management of the charge level will make heat management efficient, with fast and effective heat exchange systems, avoiding explosions or deformations. Lithium-ion batteries can be improved with new electrode materials: for example, by using graphite.

With the vast research and the possibilities of its use in the automotive sector, the potential of this battery seems promising. It is necessary to have more funds and human resources to continue research in this field, obtaining improvements in terms of the energy capacity of 30-40% over the next few years, and a strong cut in costs.