The scientists who pioneered rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and opened up the possibility of a carbon-free future were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. 

“They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its announcement

John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham of SUNY Binghamton, New York and Akira Yoshino of Japan’s Meijo University will share the $904,000 prize.

The work of the three men led to batteries that power everything from cell phones to electric vehicles and grids, driving a technological and social revolution. The technology made possible energy storage from sources that fluctuate over time, such as wind and solar.

“Battery storage, principally with lithium ion batteries, is changing the way electric generation is working.”

“Climate change is a very serious issue for humankind. The way batteries store electricity makes them very suitable for a sustainable society,” Yoshino said, speaking to the Nobel conference by telephone from Japan.

Goodenough, 97, and the oldest laureate in Nobel Prize history, continues battery research. His work introduced cobalt oxide to the cathode, a layered material that enables lithium ions to move freely, doubling its voltage at the time.

The first functional lithium ion battery was developed by Whittingham, 77, who began working on fossil-fuel alternatives during the oil crisis of the 1970s, using titanium disulphide in the cathode. Yoshino, 71, in 1985 introduced a battery based on lithium ions instead of lithium, creating a lightweight, high-performing device that could be charged hundreds of times. 

  • “Battery storage, principally with lithium ion batteries, is changing the way electric generation is working,” Lewis Milford, president of the Clean Energy Group, told Karma. Costs have fallen, enabling more consumers access to solar- or wind-powered batteries, giving them more control over their energy supply.
  • Extreme weather that creates power outages drives battery use, said Milford. In California, where outages have reached unprecedented levels, “the market for storage is exploding because people realize they are on their own.” With lithium ion battery storage, if a utility goes down, “you can ride this out.”
  • For some, battery storage is a lifeline. “Increasing storms and excessive heat present unique and dangerous risks to vulnerable people,” including those at home with electric dependent dialysis or oxygen equipment, Milford said.
  • Seth Mullendore, also of the Clean Energy Group, told Karma that batteries now outperform coal, natural gas and peaked plants on cost and performance, and are affecting “grid scale-level change” in states, including Florida, Arizona and New York.