3 win Chemistry Nobel for lithium-ion batteries, vital to phones, cleaner fuel
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3 win Chemistry Nobel for lithium-ion batteries, vital to phones, cleaner fuel

John Goodenough, 97, oldest ever laureate, is past winner of Israel’s Samson Prize; his father was expert on Judaism in the Hellenistic period

(From left) John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2019. (Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)
(From left) John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2019. (Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

STOCKHOLM (AFP) — Three researchers won the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday for the development of lithium-ion batteries, paving the way for smartphones and a fossil fuel-free society.

John Goodenough of the United States — at 97 the oldest person to be awarded a Nobel prize — Britain’s Stanley Whittingham, and Japan’s Akira Yoshino will share the nine million Swedish kronor (about $914,000 or 833,000 euros) prize equally, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

“This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles… (and) can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society,” the jury said.

“Lithium batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991,” and were “of the greatest benefit to humankind”.

Seeking an alternative source of power during the oil crisis of the 1970s, Whittingham discovered a way to harness the potential energy in lithium, a metal so light it floats on water.

He constructed a battery partly made of lithium that utilized the element’s natural tendency to shed electrons, thereby transferring energy.

However the battery was too unstable to be used.

Goodenough built on Whittingham’s prototype, substituting a different metal compound and doubling the potential energy of the battery to four volts.

This paved the way for far more powerful and durable batteries in the future.

In 1985, Yoshino instead used a carbon-based material that stores lithium ions, finally rendering the battery commercially viable.

The culmination of the trio’s research resulted in the most powerful, lightweight and rechargeable battery ever seen.

Father researched Judaism

Goodenough in 2015 was the joint recipient of Israel’s $1 million Samson prize, the world’s largest monetary prize awarded in the field of alternative fuels.

Accepting the award in Tel Aviv, he said he would donate his share “to the University of Texas at Austin for supplementing my support of two research scientists associated with the university’s Texas Materials Institute.”

The Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation is awarded by Israel’s prime minister  and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space.

Goodenough’s father, Ernest, was an academic who focused on the study of Judaism in the Hellenistic period.

Prof. John Goodenough (third from right) with Science Minister Ofir Akunis (fourth from right) at the 2015 Fuel Choices Summit, an international conference for fuel alternatives held in Tel Aviv, where Goodenough was presented with the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation (Courtesy)

Good scientists ‘stay persistent’

“This is such a wonderful thing, and I am very surprised,” Yoshino told reporters in Tokyo after winning the prize. He said he had only gotten a cell phone in recent years. “I have long felt a bit of rejection towards mobile phones, so I have never had one until recently.

“I know the lithium ion battery really benefited mobile phones”, he said, adding he did “not really” feel that he had helped make a product that benefited his life.

Winner of Nobel Prize in Chemistry Akira Yoshino smiles during a press conference in Tokyo, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

For Yoshino, a good scientist needed two qualities. “One thing is that you have to have a flexible brain. Flexibility. The other is tenacity. You stay persistent and never give up.”

Whittingham, 77, said he was “overcome with gratitude at receiving this award”.

His research “has helped advance how we store and use energy at a foundational level, and it is my hope that this recognition will help to shine a much-needed light on the (US) nation’s energy future,” he said on the website of Binghamton University in New York where he is a professor.

Stanley Whittingham, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, attends the Advanced Lithium Batteries for Automobile Applications (ABAA) conference in Ulm, Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Whittingham is one of three scientists who won 2019’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Thomas Burmeister/dpa via AP)

Yoshino, 71, works at the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo and is a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, while Goodenough holds the Cockrell Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

The trio will receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

In this Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 photo, U.S President Barack Obama awards the National Medal of Science to Dr. John Goodenough of the University of Texas. The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.” (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Last year, the honor went to US scientists Frances Arnold and George Smith and British researcher Gregory Winter for developing enzymes used for greener and safer chemistry and antibody drugs with fewer side effects.

Arnold was just the fifth woman to clinch chemistry’s most prestigious honor since Marie Curie in 1911.

This year’s Nobel season kicked off on Monday with the Medicine Prize, followed by the Physics Prize on Tuesday.

Peace Prize on Friday

The Literature Prize will follow on Thursday, with two laureates to be crowned after a sexual harassment scandal forced the Swedish Academy to postpone the 2018 award, for the first time in 70 years.

Names creating a buzz ahead of this year’s literature prize include Canadian poet Anne Carson, Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Romanian poet and novelist Mircea Cartarescu and Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk.

On Friday the action moves to Norway where the Peace Prize is awarded, with bookies predicting a win for Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The Economics Prize will wrap up the Nobel prize season on Monday, October 14.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this article.

 

 

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