Lithium ion batteries: How do they work, and why their creators earned a Nobel

USA Today Technology 2 months ago

Our smartphones, tablets and laptops would probably be worthless without them.

The lithium-ion battery is considered a significant technological breakthrough, helping its creators earn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday.

"They created a rechargeable world," read a statement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the presenters of the Nobel.

The prizes come with a $918,000 cash award, a gold medal and a diploma.

Since first entering the market in 1991, the lithium-ion battery has "laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil-fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind," said the Nobel committee in a statement. 

Here's everything you need to know about the batteries and why they're so important:

When were lithium-ion batteries created?

Stanley Whittingham, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, created the foundation of the lithium-ion battery in the 1970s during the oil crisis. Although that battery could hold up to 2 volts of energy (most modern batteries are 1.5 volts), it was too explosive to be viable, says the Nobel committee.

In 1980, John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas, created a component better at handling lithium ions, or charged lithium atoms that have lost one of its three electrons.This lead to more powerful batteries. 

Five years later, Akira Yoshino of Asahi Kasei Corporation and Meijo University in Japan, created the first commercially-viable lithium-ion battery.

How do they work?

According to the Department of Energy, a lithium-ion battery has an anode and cathode, or electric conductors we know as the "-" and "+" ends of a battery, that stores lithium, an electrolyte and separator that helps in the distribution of lithium ions through the battery and collectors for positive and negative electrical currents. 

When a lithium-ion battery discharges, a flow of ions is created from the anode to the cathode, generating the necessary power, When you charge the battery, the flow reverses from the cathode to the anode.

They are a critical piece of modern technology

The development of the lithium-ion battery has been considered revolutionary in the tech world, powering devices such as mobile phones and laptops. A key benefit is the batteries last much longer because users are able to recharge them hundreds of times.

"The advantage of lithium-ion batteries is that they are not based upon chemical reactions that break down the electrodes, but upon lithium ions flowing back and forth between the anode and cathode," said a statement from the committee.

The batteries have also been used to store energy for solar and wind power, which the committee believes is critical to moving away from fossil fuels.

One of the big issues with lithium-ion batteries is their tendency to overheat, said the Clean Energy Institute based at the University of Washington. "Because of the risks associated with these batteries, a number of shipping companies refuse to perform bulk shipments of batteries by plane," said CEI.

The batteries also help power electric vehicles

In recent years, lithium-ion batteries have become crucial to the deployment of electric vehicles, ranging from the Tesla Model 3 to the Chevrolet Bolt to the Nissan Leaf.

Unlike hybrid cars, which typically use nickel-metal hydride batteries, electric cars use higher-performance lithium-ion batteries. Their high power-to-weight ratio, energy efficiency and temperature control are particularly useful for transportation purposes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Although costs have already come down significantly, electric vehicles remain more expensive than gasoline-powered cars because of the costs associated with lithium-ion batteries. But International Trade Commission analysts projected that electric car costs would fall to the same level as conventional vehicles by 2025 or 2030, according to a paper published in December.

In the long-term, however, electric vehicles could eventually graduate to other power storage technologies, such as solid-state batteries or lithium-air batteries, experts say.

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