Chemistry Nobel Goes to Lithium Battery Innovators

(quantamagazine.org)

427 points | by tu7001 6 days ago

18 comments

  • Robotbeat 6 days ago

    I consider rechargeable lithium chemistry batteries just as crucial to the 21st century as the internal combustion engine was to the 20th. And we're only two decades in.

    1) Practical electric cars.

    2) Practical and scalable (both directions) and geographically independent grid storage.

    3) High performance cellphones and smartphones.

    4) Practical laptops and tablets.

    5) Other wearable smart devices (smartwatches, portable VR/AR, fitness trackers, etc)

    6) Medical devices (insulin pumps, CPAP, wearable artificial kidneys, portable oxygen generators, portable artificial heart, etc)

    7) Electric trucks.

    8) Electric aircraft (low range now, will soon be 1000km range, eventually will get long range and full size using more advanced chemistries like lithium sulfur, lithium anode, or even lithium air in a few decades).

    9) Battery electric trains (including things like Hyperloop or Loop people movers).

    10) Battery electric ships.

    11) E-cigarrettes.

    12) Various personal mobility devices like e-scooters, those funny hoverboard things, e-bikes, etc.

    13) Lightweight spacecraft energy storage.

    14) Aerial Drones. Both the ubiquitous quadcopter/DJI types and the more advanced winged flight delivery drones like Zipline is using to revolutionize high speed medical product delivery in places like infrastructure-hobbled Africa or rural India and may eventually become commonplace in the rest of the world for more products.

    15) Greatly enhanced submarine propulsion, especially for underwater drones. (I have a feeling we're just scratching the surface with this one.)

    16) Robotic prosthetics/assistance devices.

    17) Animal or humanoid robotics like Boston Dynamics.

    18) Ground based delivery drones.

    19) Other ground-based drones like more compact robotic vacuums, those silly robotic trashcans, etc.

    20) Secondary power sources, like for hybrid cars or APUs for aircraft or launch vehicles (such as SpaceX's Starship).

    It's actually remarkable how big of an impact lithium ion batteries have already had. In some cases, it's just significantly extending the performance and convenience of things already marginally viable using lead acid or NiMH batteries, and in others it's truly enabling. And we're just getting started.

    I truly believe the impact of the rechargeable lithium chemistry battery in the 21st Century will be just as great or greater than the internal combustion was for the 20th century.

    So this prize is well-earned.

    • outworlder 5 days ago

      Even simple things that we took for granted, like bicycles, have been undergoing transformation basically due to lithium batteries.

      Apart from the obvious (e-bikes), there are also electronic gear shifters and even lights. Lights used to be dynamo powered (and go out when not moving). Now, $5 devices will provide more light than what we previously had available, and are more reliable.

      There are probably other, less conspicuous applications that we are missing and taking for granted.

      • dpark 5 days ago

        > Lights used to be dynamo powered (and go out when not moving). Now, $5 devices will provide more light than what we previously had available, and are more reliable.

        Credit for that really belongs to LEDs. Dynamo lights sucked because the bulbs were 1/10 as efficient as modern ones. Standard alkaline batteries are quite sufficient for bike lights.

      • narrator 5 days ago

        Very long term prediction, but I think the most important technology of the 22nd century will be powering humans with electricity using some sort of sophisticated wetware tech. It would cost less than a dollar a day in electricity to give someone 2000 calories of energy.

        Humans will then always be more power efficient than any AI and will be able to live in space and on other planets far more easily.

        • steelframe 5 days ago

          > Humans will then always be more power efficient than any AI

          Wait, wait, I've heard this one before. The Matrix, right??

          https://filmschoolrejects.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/0un...

          • narrator 5 days ago

            You got it in reverse. Batteries power humans, not humans are batteries.

          • aeternum 5 days ago

            Interesting idea, I wonder if we could basically do that now albeit probably not very efficiently. All a machine needs to do is manufacture glucose using CO2, H2O & energy, then we inject it directly into our bloodstream, probably along with some multivitamins.

          • cjbenedikt 6 days ago

            ...and how big an impact mining it will have on environment and water use...just saying

            • Robotbeat 6 days ago

              It will likely have some (small) impact just due to the scale of its use. However, the process is not too different from sea salt production... You're evaporating a brine, usually. And you're displacing fossil fuel use with a material that can be recycled, so instead of constantly mining for fossil fuels, we can just extract the material once.

              Additionally, it can be extracted from seawater at a price that isn't insane, most affordably through desalination discharge brine. So in that sense, it could actually improve water usage by helping offset the cost of desalination.

              So a huge net positive compared to our current system and with a pathway to eliminate the negative impact entirely.

              • ngold 5 days ago

                That is some of the most wonderful news I have heard in a long time. Thank's.

                • tverbeure 6 days ago

                  > And you're displacing fossil fuel use with a material that can be recycled, so instead of constantly mining for fossil fuels, we can just extract the material once.

                  I was wondering about the recycling aspects of Lithium.

                  According to Wikipedia, it's not a thing (yet?), because mining lithium is 5x cheaper than recycling. But they're working on it...

                  • Robotbeat 6 days ago

                    It's a thing, but it's done at a small scale. And prices of lithium have started to climb to the point that it is looking attractive.

                    And there's a simple solution, here: have companies (including foreign, via tariffs) pay for the fully burdened cost of the environmental damage they're inflicting. That'll end virtually all fossil fuel usage and enable recycling and/or exclusively low-impact mining techniques.

                    • rory096 5 days ago

                      >including foreign, via tariffs

                      Border adjustments, not tariffs.

                    • ajross 6 days ago

                      The most constrained components elements in lithium ion batteries are not lithium itself (which is very common in the Earth's crust, though tends not to concentrate in easily minable ores) but the heavy metals like Cobalt used in the cathode. These will be the first focus for recycling.

                      • e9 5 days ago

                        lithium is common but to get it's hard to extract, highest concentration is 0.14%(https://investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/battery-m...) which means in 1 cubic feet of brine there are 0.0014 cubic feet of lithium. Imagine how much power it takes to dig it out (definitely monster construction machinery ran on fossil fuels etc) and then add extraction process to that. I would be interested to see if there are any sources digging deeper into it.

                        • Robotbeat 5 days ago

                          Interestingly, lithium ion technology is also transforming "monster" mining equipment to run on pure electricity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UH4XgPN65Q (and this especially helps with underground mining)

                          But also, the brine is simply pumped. It's liquid.

                          • ajross 5 days ago

                            It's not cheap to refine, but it's not going to "run out", so relevant to the upthread point the calculus on mine-vs-recycle isn't likely to change much.

                    • m463 5 days ago

                      so...

                      - whale oil made nighttime lighting possible

                      - the steam engine/tractor/etc and other labor saving devices eliminated slavery

                      - mining coal saved the world from deforestation

                      - drilling for oil reduced environmental damage and loss of life from coal mining

                      - natural gas has reduced oil consumption

                      - lithium batteries have replaced consumables as portable energyn

                      ...are things getting better or not?

                      • gonzo41 5 days ago

                        I think the implied point is that each of the things you list has a long tail economically to the world, sure it's an improvement but the environment cost of each of those developments is a canned kicked down the road, and we are down the road from a few of those developments now, and we don't have a solution.

                        - whales - there are less whales now.

                        - coal mining - green house gasses

                        - oil drilling - oil spills and green house gasses

                        - natural gas - release of methane gas from LNG fracking

                        - lithium - who knows yet. but probably green house gasses and pollution from manufacture.

                        • oblio 5 days ago

                          Going back to the time before we were hunting whales is not an option, though. Any discussion that tries that is practically useless.

                      • penagwin 5 days ago

                        Given the rise of renewable energy - lithium batteries provide an alternative to fossil fuels.

                        I have no clue how lithium mining + solar panels, etc vs fossil fuels compare environmentally though. But they are at least lowering fossil fuel usage.

                    • Merrill 6 days ago

                      It appears that Whittingham did his work at Exxon, and Yoshino did his at Asahi Kasei. So both were at industrial research labs when they did the Nobel prize-winning work.

                      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._Stanley_Whittingham https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_Yoshino

                      • How does the prize money work in relation to the employer? If they did the work as part of their employment, would the employer have a claim to that money?

                        • BurningFrog 6 days ago

                          This is an individual prize unrelated to "intellectual property".

                          • ajross 6 days ago

                            It's certainly not impossible that you could have an employment contract where the employee agrees to assign rights to stuff like prize money to the employer. I'd be shocked beyond belief if such a contract existed here though.

                            • ceejayoz 6 days ago

                              > I'd be shocked beyond belief if such a contract existed here though.

                              Even if it existed, the PR backlash of "Exxon steals Nobel Prize from scientist" would probably prevent its enforcement.

                        • elamje 6 days ago

                          If you want to see an accomplished life, look up John Goodenough on Wikipedia. Casually fought in WWII, developed Lithium-Ion, still going strong in his 90’s.

                          https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Goodenough

                          • peterholcomb 6 days ago

                            It would have been pretty heartbreaking (to me at least) for him to have passed before getting the Nobel. Glad they finally gave it to him.

                            • labster 6 days ago

                              Would have been impossible too: Nobel Prizes are bestowed only on the living, so as to fund their research.

                            • ericmcer 6 days ago

                              It's really inspiring to see someone doing some of their most important work after they are 50+ years old.

                              • Gibbon1 5 days ago

                                You can look up Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson who produced probably the first high efficiency[1] silicon solar cells in the mid 1950's. They were all in their late 40's early 50's at the time.

                                [1] Six percent!!!

                            • michannne 6 days ago

                              Well deserved. We would not be anywhere where we are today without Li-ion batteries.

                              "Goodenough" is also a surname I have never heard in my life and it is as odd as I expected it to be.

                            • searine 6 days ago

                              Aside from the topic, which is interesting in its own right, I find it neat that the prize went to faculty at lesser known universities. Nobody is surprised to see Harvard or Oxford listed.

                              SUNY at Binghamton however is an outlier. Congrats to SUNY.

                            • archeantus 5 days ago

                              It's fascinating to look at what this technology (not perfect, but definitely Goodenough) has accomplished. And it is also crazy to think that it was almost more of a discovery, than an invention.

                              Does this mean that the next breakthrough is hiding in plain sight, waiting for someone to put the perfect cocktail of raw materials together? I have no bg in chemistry, but the thought of being part of making a next-level battery sounds very exciting.

                              • amelius 5 days ago

                                Perhaps someone could automate the discovery process: build a robot that mixes stuff together, then test how well it works as a battery, then make incremental improvements perhaps using a genetic algorithm.

                                • selimthegrim 4 days ago

                                  People have done it for photoelectrochemical cells like Nate Lewis at Caltech

                                  • vmurthy 5 days ago

                                    There might be a better way: Only simulate the mixing and identify high probability cocktails and then let a robot mix stuff together. Applicable to Pharma industry, too.

                                • I listened to an interview with Goodenough last month. Pretty interesting story. https://cen.acs.org/people/profiles/Podcast-97-lithium-ion-b...

                                • orliesaurus 6 days ago

                                  weirdly enough a few months ago (maybe like a close to a year...) someone on HN shared an article on J.B. Goodenough which I had read. Today, before clicking on the link I assumed because of the fact that someone had shared the article here before, that he would be one of the Innovators who had won the Nobel. Thanks HN for making me learn and remember little details like this!

                                  • privacy_esq 6 days ago

                                    I went to SUNY Binghamton for undergrad. Great school and exciting to see!

                                    • thebenedict 6 days ago

                                      Me too -- studied Materials Science while Dr. Whittingham was department co-chair circa 2005. I never worked with him but it's a happy surprise to see him and Binghamton in the news.

                                      • marrowgari 6 days ago

                                        As someone who grew up in the triple cities (surrounding Binghamton area) I'm sorry but also what exciting news.

                                      • pier25 6 days ago

                                        Clean, sustainable, and efficient energy storage is probably the most important thing humanity needs right now.

                                        The big problem with renewable energy is that generally it's not available on demand.

                                        • manfredo 6 days ago

                                          Solved by nuclear, which is renewable through uranium seawater extraction.

                                          • Nuclear is an economic un-reality.

                                            In theory, with large-scale cooperative government support, nuclear can happen. We can develop the next generation of nuclear infrastructure and have safe and affordable generation. Without that, nuclear is an un-economic pipe-dream that gets more expensive as renewable generation gets more affordable.

                                            Realistically, with over-provisioning, grid upgrades, and modest lithium battery storage, renewables can and will scale.

                                            • manfredo 5 days ago

                                              > In theory, with large-scale cooperative government support, nuclear can happen.

                                              Not just in theory, France did exactly that and did it successfully. They're paying half the cost of electricity as Germany while emitting less than half as much carbon. South Korea has also made large gains in nuclear power. US nuclear power would have been considerably more cost effective if plants weren't closed before the end of their planned lifecycle - the "nuclear plants are expensive, let's close them" meme is self fulfilling.

                                              > Realistically, with over-provisioning, grid upgrades, and modest lithium battery storage, renewables can and will scale.

                                              Places like California and Germany have attempted this. They have both realized that efficient storage remains a fantasy and use gas plants to provide energy when intermittent sources do not produce power. Most renewable energy projects are, in reality, combined cycle gas plants supplemented by renewables. This is good, because combined cycle gas plants are much cleaner than the coal plants they are replacing. But they still emit carbon and in Europe's case creates dependency on Russia for energy.

                                              • philipkglass 5 days ago

                                                California, at least its CAISO grid [1], is more like "renewables supplemented by combined cycle gas plants." The change is fairly recent.

                                                Annual real power [2] generated by gas plants in CAISO reached its all time high in 2014 at 11707 MW. In 2014 generation from renewables was only 5418 MW. Renewables have increased and gas has declined every year since. The crossover first happened in 2017 when gas power dipped to 7396 MW and renewables rose to 9671 MW. For 2019, gas is down to 6835 MW (to date) and renewables are up to 10507 MW (also to date).

                                                Sorry that I don't have a quick citation for these numbers, but the raw data is here:

                                                http://content.caiso.com/green/renewrpt/

                                                I've downloaded all the daily *.txt files and cobbled together big CSVs from them to track these sorts of statistics.

                                                [1] http://www.caiso.com/about/Pages/default.aspx

                                                [2] Annual real power meaning number of megawatt hours generated in the year divided by number of hours in the year; this implicitly accounts for differing capacity factors.

                                                • manfredo 5 days ago

                                                  This directly contradicts the first results I find: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_California#/media/...

                                                  Solar and wind add up to 25.5% of generation, as compared to over 40% natural gas. Add hydro and geothermal and renewables rise to 43%, still far from the 100:70 renewable to gas ratio you claimed. But hydroelectric and geothermal are geographically limited, the plan is still to build more solar and wind, with gas plants for use when demand exceeds the renewables' production.

                                                  • philipkglass 5 days ago

                                                    That chart says that natural gas was 43.8% in 2018. It also gives:

                                                    Solar, 19.0%

                                                    Hydro, 12.3%

                                                    Wind, 6.5%

                                                    Geothermal, 5.7%

                                                    Wood/biomass, 2.7%

                                                    Add those renewable sources together and you get 46.2%, more (but only slightly more) than natural gas. It looks like the chart-maker's data source is the Energy Information Administration. The greater dominance of renewables that I found may be because I'm just tracking the CAISO grid. The EIA would have data covering Southern California as well.

                                                    • selimthegrim 4 days ago

                                                      As far as MISO (not CAISO) goes, fantasy is a bit much to say, see https://energytransition.umn.edu/modernizing-minnesotas-grid...

                                                  • renox 5 days ago

                                                    > France did exactly that and did it successfully. They're paying half the cost of electricity as Germany while emitting less than half as much carbon.

                                                    Successfully.. Maybe! The cost of electricity we pay include the planned cost for the end of life (dismantling the plants, etc), are the planned costs realistic?

                                                    That's a BIG assumption, I think that the new nuclear plant (EPR) is 4 times over budget and 8-year late and we have never dismantled a real big nuclear plant..

                                                    • manfredo 5 days ago

                                                      Yes, costs include decommissioning. I have no idea where the idea that large nuclear plants have never been decommissioned - dozens have. Total costs exceeded projections by ~40 billion euros. But in aggregate France's nuclear projects are dirt cheap compared to the hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars to be spent in other countries' non-nuclear decarbonization plans. And it's offset by the 3.3 billion euros of power exported to neighboring countries that fail to meet their energy needs through non-nuclear energy (namely Germany which foolishly decided to prematurely close it's nuclear plants). France has created electricity generation that is both cheap and carbon free.

                                                • pier25 6 days ago

                                                  AFAIK uranium is not a renewable energy source since it is finite and does not replenish itself.

                                                  Am I missing something?

                                                  • manfredo 6 days ago

                                                    Uranium is dissolved in seawater, which can be extracted [1]. When the portion of uranium in seawater drops, more uranium in the crust gets dissolved into seawater. It's estimated that about 100 billion tons of uranium can be extracted in this method, enough to power humanity for millions of years [2].

                                                    If you want to get pedantic, there is a finite amount of fissile material. But the same applies to solar power: there's a finite amount of hydrogen in the sun. Entropy dictates that energy is finite, thus there's no such thing as a truly renewable energy source.

                                                    1. https://www.pnnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=4514

                                                    2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2016/07/01/uranium-s...

                                                    • pier25 6 days ago

                                                      Thanks I didn't know about the possibility of dissolving uranium into seawater.

                                              • throwawaybbq1 5 days ago

                                                I was at an event today where Al Gore spoke positively about LiON battery as energy storage. I was a bit surprised .. is this sustainable tech?

                                                • Ultimately, yes.

                                                  There are a variety of lithium battery technologies, so it's important to recognize that there are differences, and that the state-of-the-art does change with some frequency. But, if nothing else, the metal inputs to battery production can be smelted and recovered, and Lithium is plentiful.

                                                  "Good" recycling of batteries would involve recovering the electrode materials directly and easily 'refreshing' them. This would make batteries very sustainable. Work on developing this process for various chemistries is ongoing, but not yet ready. Research and development of recycling-friendly chemistries and production is just beginning. https://cen.acs.org/materials/energy-storage/time-serious-re...

                                                  The batteries themselves will be getting much more durable. A JES article was recently published that made quite a few headlines as a 'million mile' car battery, but it's not hype. http://jes.ecsdl.org/content/166/13/A3031 This is extant technology (indeed, at least 3 years old) that's proving to be exceptionally durable. This gives batteries at least two decades of nearly-full capacity, with the potential to last much longer with useful capacity.

                                                  We're not there yet, but there's no physical or chemical reason that Lithium battery technology can't be sustainable.

                                                  • throwawaybbq1 5 days ago

                                                    There are two issues that come to mind .. do we have enough materials to make more and more LiON batteries (grid level storage) and are these things recyclable/not going to mess up the Earth?

                                                  • anderspitman 5 days ago

                                                    The batteries in the banner image look to be 18650s, an extremely popular lion form factor. There are more than 7000 of them in each Tesla battery.

                                                    • Tuxer 5 days ago

                                                      Tesla moved to 21700 on model 3 and newer models

                                                      • anderspitman 1 day ago

                                                        Apparently my information is out of date, thanks.

                                                    • bvssatish 6 days ago

                                                      Long overdue.

                                                      • excalibur 6 days ago

                                                        Better late than never!

                                                        • KIFulgore 6 days ago

                                                          No kidding... the Nobel committee seems to aim for nearly-posthumous far too often.

                                                        • cagenut 6 days ago

                                                          I consider it a glitch in the simulation that the guy who may have saved us from self-immolating on carbon with an alternative that may prove out to be just barely good enough... is named Goodenough.

                                                        • scrumbledober 6 days ago

                                                          Johnny B Good (enough)

                                                          • BurningFrog 6 days ago

                                                            So in a way, these guys are the fathers of the modern cell phone.

                                                            • imvetri 6 days ago

                                                              Shouldn't they be accountable for toxicity in environment.

                                                              • simonh 6 days ago

                                                                Why do you think they hold responsibility for the actions of others?