IAs is well known, every crisis has an opportunity. For the British chemist Stanley Whittingham, it was the oil crisis of the 1970s to which he owed the breakthrough in his groundbreaking discovery: the first lithium-ion battery. Today, the powerful rechargeable power sources are in every smartphone and laptop. They drive household appliances and e-cars and store the electricity generated from wind power and photovoltaics. Without powerful batteries there is no effective climate protection, no energy and no traffic turnaround.
Like many oil companies, Whittingham’s then employer Exxon Mobile feared the end of the oil boom and a collapse in profits in 1973. Electric cars were already being considered, but there was a lack of powerful rechargeable car batteries. The traditional lead batteries were too heavy and too weak for that. Wittingham’s new battery concept, which promised the construction of lighter and significantly stronger car batteries, came at just the right time.
Whittingham, who was born in Nottingham, studied chemistry at Oxford and received his doctorate there in 1968, had already gained experience as a postdoc at Stanford University with materials that could be used in the construction of batteries. He now benefited from that at Exxon. He achieved his best results with a positive electrode made of titanium sulfide in which he stored lithium ions. When he combined this positive pole with a negative electrode made of metallic lithium, he built the first lithium-ion battery. Its prototype was light and already delivered more voltage than any other battery known at the time. It could even be recharged. All you had to do was apply an external voltage.
But when Exxon was about to start production, they got a nasty surprise. The first models exploded in operation. The cause was metallic lithium which, when charged several times, was deposited on the negative electrode and formed elongated structures that led to violent short circuits. Whittingham succeeded in making his power source safer, and in 1976 he patented his invention. But because the price of oil had fallen in the meantime, Exxon stopped manufacturing the battery. Whittingham left the company after 14 years and embarked on a college career. In 1988 he was appointed professor at Binghamton University.
Meanwhile, two other researchers, the American physicist John Goodenough and the Japanese engineer Akira Yoshino, had further developed Whittingham’s rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The two researchers were able to remedy the teething problems with better electrode materials and double the cell voltage. The new batteries could be charged many times and could be manufactured in all sizes. In 1991 the first lithium batteries made in Japan came onto the market almost at the same time as the first smartphones, MP3 players and laptops. The first e-cars were also not long in coming.
Around forty years after his pioneering work, Stanley Whitthingham was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019, along with Goodenough and Yoshino. Like his two colleagues, he is still researching better batteries despite his age. In his opinion, the powerhouses are far from exhausted. Today Stanley Whittingham turns eighty.