If today you can charge a mobile in less than an hour and use it throughout the day, it is because it has a lithium-ion battery. The same that goes into laptops, electric vehicles and renewable energy storage plants. Although it has been on the market since the 1990s, its first version was created two decades earlier. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, the US company Exxon (now ExxonMobil) hired the chemist Stanley Whittingham (Nottingham, United Kingdom, 1941) to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The objective was to start with electric vehicles and the researcher, who had gone through Oxford and Stanford, laid the foundations of the element that would change the behavior of humanity.
His work with superconducting materials culminated in the first prototype lithium-ion battery, which was functional but not as safe. Ten years later, the physicist John Goodenough showed that, by changing a few elements, it could store more energy. A breakthrough that was improved upon by engineer Akira Yoshino, who starred in the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1991.
The three received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the joint development of lithium-ion batteries. In his speech, Whittingan highlighted the importance of interdisciplinarity and international collaboration to find the solutions the world needs. The main technical challenge is to improve the capacity of current batteries, while globally, the supply chain of elements must be changed and recycling encouraged. “Right now, some of the materials travel 50,000 miles (more than 80,000 kilometers) from the mine to the finished product, which doesn’t make any sense,” says the researcher, who visited the Ramón Areces Foundation in Madrid in November to share a lecture on climate change and the critical role of energy storage.
Ask. What is it like to see the whole world wearing something you invented?
Reply. It’s unbelievable, but we expected it. When we started working with lithium batteries, the interest was electric vehicles. There was nothing like iPhones and laptops. It was the communications revolution that launched lithium batteries.
We have to bet on renewables, and I include nuclear energy as one of them.
Q. ExxonMobil was the great support for this invention. What are companies doing today?
R. When I joined Exxon, most of the big companies had what they called corporate research labs. We did fundamental research related to the company. All of that disappeared around 1990 and 1995. Companies should do it today because they’re the only ones who can directly investigate future business, but I think they’re more concerned with next month’s stock outcome than what’s going to happen. in five or ten years. In the 1970s, they were much more concerned with the long term.
Q. At this time, no further investment was made to improve lithium batteries because it was considered to be too early and not necessary. Is it now too late?
R. We have to do it now. We cannot burn coal and we must get rid of most of the oil. So we must have new sources of renewable energy and that requires storage. More research needs to be done to make batteries better, safer and lower cost. We have no other choice.
Q. In most countries, the energy that is stored comes from coal, oil and gas.
R. We must have green energy in the first place. New York State no longer generates electricity from coal. I have seen that England wants to get electricity from solar panels in Morocco and they are putting a very big electric cable there. In Scandinavia, almost all power is hydroelectric. So I think countries are going to change. The energy problems that arose from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine teach us that you cannot depend on other countries to have gas and oil. We have to bet on renewables, and I include nuclear energy as one of them. The battery is just a means to store energy until the time you want to use it.
Q. What is the next step you hope to see?
R. We want to double the energy density, the energy storage of lithium batteries. In US terms, drop from $120 per kWh to about $60. We have to get rid of some of the materials we use now, like cobalt. We probably have to stop using a lot of nickel. Also, improve the electrolyte, which is the liquid inside the battery.
What I call dummy batteries have no electronic protection inside, so they can catch fire.
Q. Would increasing the energy density increase the risks of explosions?
R. Wherever energy is stored it is not particularly safe. If the gasoline engine were invented today, we would not allow putting 20 gallons (75 liters) of gasoline under a car and then placing a child’s seat right on top of it. We have gotten used to it and the same will happen with electric vehicles. But the batteries need to be safer and we may have to stop buying the super cheap models from certain countries.
Q. In your honors class after receiving the Nobel prize, you said that a good battery can last forever. Are the ones on the market of good quality?
R. A battery is designed to last as long as the device in which it is used. Nobody wants to pay for a 20 year old battery to put in their phone and change it every three or four. But if you do change it, you have to make sure it’s a really good battery. What I call dummy batteries have no electronic protection inside, so they can catch fire.
The first thing is to save energy. It is the easiest way to help the energy transition
Q. Are governments doing enough to regulate them?
R. They must insist that any battery in circulation meet national standards. In the United States, many do not comply and there have been fires because people carry them inside their homes. The controls aren’t great, but they’re on the market and they’re cheap. You have to be careful.
Q. Is recycling the solution to ensure that supply meets demand?
R. The goal in the United States is for all batteries to be recycled and in New York State it is not allowed to throw them away. The ones on the mobile are 100% cobalt, so they are worth a lot of money. So we should encourage people to recycle it. Batteries are one example, semiconductors are another, same with plastics. Sometimes, even when it goes for recycling, you don’t know if they are actually recycled or if they send (the garbage) to developing countries. The companies that manufacture them should be forced to recycle them at the source. That has to come from governments.
Q. Elon Musk is the owner of the largest electric vehicle company in the world. Should I use his influence to encourage recycling?
R. I’m not sure he’s interested in that sort of thing. One of his former engineers has created a recycling company right next to a large battery plant in Nevada (United States). They also claim that it is going to be a mining company: they are mining old batteries to get all the materials they contain. Nobody trusts him lately.
Q. China has provided many subsidies to make it cheaper to buy an electric vehicle. Why don’t the US and Europe do it in a more significant way?
R. The US and Europe could sell many more cars if they had the necessary batteries and materials. The wait is 12-24 months in the US. It’s a supply chain problem. We don’t have the manufacturing facilities, we don’t have the mines, we don’t have the trained people either. Many of the big battery factories are South Korean companies, like LG, Samsung and SK, which are now building manufacturing plants in the US What we really want is for Americans to make their own batteries; I imagine that the European governments want the same thing. We have to get away from this broken global supply chain. We saw that during Covid-19 we couldn’t get masks. Now we can’t get semiconductors. We have to regionalize everything.
We have to get away from this broken global supply chain. We saw him with the masks during the Covid-19. Happen now with semiconductors
Q. Will this problem be solved in the next few years?
R. There is a huge trend in the US to become more independent from Asia. We cannot allow 100% of something to come from one place, no matter where it is. We need more diversity.
Q. If you were starting your research now, what would you do?
R. The most interesting areas in science today are not chemistry or physics, but a middle ground between these two disciplines. Another is everything that refers to biomedicine, which is found between biology, engineering, chemistry and medicine. Those are the two big areas that I find most exciting. I like to do what I call focused research, which starts from fundamental research but with a practical objective in the future.
Q. On a personal level, how can you contribute to this energy transition?
R. The first thing is to save energy. The easiest way is to use less energy in everything we do. A person in the US consumes approximately twice as much energy as each person in Europe. We can certainly reduce. And I hope that the people of Europe can also reduce their expenses. We need more public transportation, so that people don’t drive their cars by themselves. When I worked for Exxon, we all carpooled. It was normal. It seems that this no longer happens.
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