Stanley Whittinghamwho received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for the invention of the lithium battery together with john goodenough Y Akira Yoshinoit only took him three months to develop the concept of the lithium battery that has changed the world in the fall of 1972. At the age of 31 and educated at Oxford, he was the first to see on the horizon what would later become a unparalleled technical revolution. Fifty years later, the historical milestones that mark the development of the lithium battery seem to make its birth impossible.
Still very young, with a recently completed postdoc program at Stanford University, Whittingham he worked for Exxon Corp. in New Jersey. Ironically, his invention did not at all benefit the business of an oil company like Exxon.
Early applications for this battery would include camcorders, laptops, and smartphones. None of them had anything to do, even remotely, with Exxon. Later, this same technology would end up powering electric vehicles around the world becoming a competitor to Exxon’s main product, oil. In retrospect, it seems impossible that Exxon could have supported such an investigation. But he did.
Whittingham’s work at Exxon progressed rapidly. He joined the company in September 1972, and within a few weeks began working on a concept he had studied at Stanford. The concept implied insert ions into the atomic lattice of certain metals and then extract those ions. It was called intercalation and allowed energy to be stored.
He decided to build a battery using intercalation materials on both electrodes. First, he considered a variety of layered compounds and chose titanium for the battery’s cathode. Next, he made a decision that changed the history of science. For the anode, he initially looked at the potassium function, but decided it was too dangerous. And so he decided on a soft, silvery and lightweight metal… the lithium.
Ultimately, he decided to use lithium not only in the battery’s anode, but also in the electrolyte. And the results he got were amazing. While the best batteries of the time operated at 1.3 volts, this new battery offered 2.4 volts. And, thanks to the science of collation, in addition, was rechargeable. Working versions of Whittingham’s lithium titanium disulfide battery were complete by December 1972.
A month later, Exxon managers summoned Whittingham to their offices in New York City. “They asked me to speak to a subcommittee of the Exxon board and explain what he was doing,” recalls Whittingham. “Someone in investigation had told them what was going on, so I went in and explained it: five minutes, ten tops. And in a week they decided that they did want to invest in it”.
In today’s times, for Exxon to invest in a technology that would compete with oil in the future seems incredible. But the world was different in 1972. The scientific consensus at the time held that the Earth would run out of oil in 50 years. By the year 2000, according to scientists, there would not be enough oil available. Furthermore, the culture of corporate research was different in 1972. Big companies like Exxon believed deeply in the concept of fundamental research: science for science’s sake. Scientific articles and patents were the target. If a breakthrough was made, the company would figure out how to profit from it.
Whittingham went ahead and Exxon requested a patent in Belgium in 1973. That year, when the US oil crisis hit, Exxon sped up the paperwork, and by 1975 its lawyers were applying for a series of US patents on the Whittingham battery.
Whittingham’s battery was not yet known as lithium-ion or used the same chemistry as today’s. But it operated with the same fundamental mechanism: lithium ions inserted into a host electrode. one was made small button cell version of the battery and was used in a “perpetual solar wristwatch” sold by a Swiss company, Ebauches SAwhere it worked perfectly.
Despite this successful trial, Exxon slowly lost interest in the lithium titanium disulfide battery. The oil crisis faded, the wristwatch app was deemed insignificant, and corporate priorities changed. Finally, the managers of the company decided sell the technology. The battery was licensed to three companies: one in Asia, one in Europe and one in the US “There wasn’t much discussion,” Whittingham said years later. “One day they just said, ‘Let’s stop doing this.’
The rechargeable lithium battery was not dead. In 1980, john goodenougha 58-year-old American working at Oxford University in England, enhanced Whittingham’s drumming with a new cathode. Goodenough’s cathode was called lithium cobalt oxide and it offered an amazing four volts. This new version was even better: more energetic and also rechargeable. There was nothing like it on the commercial market.
But when Goodenough contacted battery manufacturers in the UK, US and continental Europe, he found no one interested. The world, it seemed, did not want the rechargeable lithium battery. Even Oxford University refused to pay for a patent. To obtain patent protection, Goodenough had to travel to a government laboratory in nearby Harwell, England, and sign over his rights to the invention. This laboratory patented the technology and this one became inactive.
Years later, however, Harwell’s lab received an unexpected call from sony, the Japanese technology company, to discuss a licensing agreement on a patent that had been gathering dust for eight years. The call surprised everyone in the lab. At first, scientists could not imagine what patent had aroused such interest. They soon realized that Sony was citing an old patent titled “Electrochemical Cell with Fast Ion Conductors.” It was John Goodenough’s patent.
Sony engineers wanted the patent in order to implement the batteries for your new camcorder, called a Handycam. Using the rechargeable lithium cell, it could offer lighter weight and longer working time. Their plan was to use Goodenough’s cobalt oxide cathode and couple it with a petcoke anode developed by Akira Yoshino in Japan for Asahi Chemical in Japan.
The rechargeable lithium battery was on the right track. Sony called it a lithium-ion battery, included it in the Handycam, and offered to the market from 1991. Soon, it began to be used on laptops and smartphones. In 1998, Nissan Motor put a lithium-ion battery in a limited-edition electric car called the Altra for the first time, and began drawing up bigger plans. Later, as we already know, other car manufacturers did the same and lithium-ion battery became a $30 billion a year growth business.
The Nobel Prize
Neither Whittingham nor Goodenough made any money from their inventions. Goodenough gave up the rights to his lithium cobalt oxide chemical in 1980, making it impossible for him to make a personal profit. Whittingham’s lithium titanium disulfide was used only as a single application in the Ebauches wristwatch.
In 2019, both scientists were co-winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Akira Yoshino, At the time, 47 years had passed since Whittingham’s invention and 39 since Goodenough’s development.
On his desk, Whittingham keeps a sundial powered by a titanium lithium disulfide battery. He built the clock in 1977. It still works today and is the only application that uses that particular chemistry. He says he understands why his chemistry didn’t have a big commercial impact in the 1970s. “The (battery) market just wasn’t going to be big enough, our invention came too early.”
We would like to give thanks to the author of this post for this awesome content
The lithium battery turns 50, although its history could have been a very different one