2019 Nobel prize: chemistry

What was the 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry all about?
15 October 2019

Interview with 

Jenny Gracie, University of Strathclyde


Row of rechargeable batteries


Time now to hear about the Chemistry Nobel Prize. Here's Jenny Gracie from the University of Strathclyde...

Jenny - The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to John B Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akita Yoshino. Each of them had a major contribution to the creation of the lithium ion battery, something we probably all have with us right now.

These types of batteries have been around for decades and although not a recent invention, it is now with their global application that this research has been recognised. Together, the laureates managed to tame lithium - a highly reactive element. They applied it in a controlled chemical cycle which is able to store and release energy on demand. The inside of all batteries contains three basic parts, a positive electrode, a negative electrode, and a liquid that separates the two. And this is known as the electrolyte.

It was the advancement of the battery design that won the scientists the Nobel Prize. By using lithium, which is the world's lightest metal, they were able to pack many atoms into the battery design but keep the device lightweight.

Lithium has three electrons and it will very easily release one to become a positively charged ion. During discharge, the lithium ions  move from one electrode through the liquid electrolyte to the other electrode. This process is reversible and this is how we can recharge the batteries time and time again.

The reason their design is so groundbreaking is the materials chosen for the electrodes. They use cobalt oxides and petroleum coke. Both materials have a layered structure with many gaps which allows the free movement of the lithium ions. This winning combination results in a battery with a high voltage. And this is a major triumph over the previously used lead acid and alkaline designs.

The impact of the battery design in society is huge. We use them everyday in our electronics to work, communicate and even make transportation more eco-friendly. They're also employed in many life saving medical devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators. Lithium ion batteries have revolutionised the world we live in and catapulted us into a new technological era.  This exciting opportunity is what makes this year's prize a very well-deserved award.


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