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Nobel Laureate Explains How Lithium-Ion Battery Was Created And Its Future

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was recently awarded to a professor at Binghamton University, Stan Whittingham. He won the award for his over 30 year career working on the lithium-ion battery. Whittingham is regarded as the man who laid the groundwork for the science. He shared the award with John B. Goodenough of Austin, Texas, and Akira Yoshino of Japan, who made their own developments with the lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are used in laptops, electric vehicles and for grid storage.

Whittingham spoke with WSKG's Sarah Gager

whittingham interview


Sarah Gager: Thanks for being here.

Stan Whittingham: Thank you.

SG: Were you expecting to receive the award? Where were you when you found out that you had won?

SW: I was in Germany, at Ulm, at a large battery conference, and, no, we were not expecting it. I think there was a lot of publicity four or five years ago. So the university was preparing for it, and nothing happened. As the years went by, nothing happened. So this year, we were not expecting it.

SG: Oh wow, so it was a big surprise this year. Finally, you got it.

SW: Yes, finally, and I just stepped out of the meeting and someone said, “You got an urgent phone call from Sweden.”

SG: And how did you feel when you learned you had won?

SW: Great. It was good for me and I think it was stupendous for the whole field.

SG: Does the award come with some kind of responsibility?

SW: I know I have to spend at least a week to ten days in Sweden. We go to universities. We have to go to at least one high school, and I gather so many, half the people there, will be school students, not just the public.

SG: And what will be the purpose of that visit?

SW: To get students interested in science.

SG: Great. You’ve been working on this for over 30 years, and now I’m asking you to summarize those 30 years very briefly to explain how the lithium-ion battery works?

SW: Well, I’ve, in fact, been working on them since about 1972. So almost 50 years. There was a large gas crisis in the 70s. So Exxon and other companies decided they’ll be energy companies, not just oil companies, and they wanted to develop batteries for electric vehicles. And that’s what got us started.

SG: So, what is the-how does it work?

SW: Really it’s very simple. All you’re doing is taking lithium ions and sliding them into a solid material without really changing that material. You can think of it like pulling water into a sponge. It soaks the water up, so do these materials soak up lithium ion. And when we recharge the battery, we take those lithium ions out so they’re ready to go back in again.

SG: How did you conceptualize this?

SW: It’s difficult. We were working on something else, totally different. We were working on superconductivity, trying to make some materials, and we suddenly realized there was a lot of energy released when we made those materials. We said, “Ha ha, we can harness that energy and use it.”

SG: What do you hope for the future for lithium-ion batteries?

SW: I think lithium-ion batteries are going to dominate storage for at least the next ten years. It should help clean our environment. We’ll get more electric vehicles. And certainly I think you see big cities banning internal combustion engines; they’ll go totally electric. And places like BAE Systems with all their buses will have even a larger market.

We can enable solar and wind, because they have to have storage because the sun doesn’t shine all that often in Binghamton. So we need to store the energy. Same—wind blows mostly at night. So it will enable wind, it will enable solar. So it will be cleaner altogether.

SG: How does the grid storage work?

SW: Basically you can use the grid storage. You can charge the battery straight from the grid, say at midnight when there’s low demand, the electricity is low cost, store it, then use it from those batteries say at 5PM when everyone wants electricity. Alternatively, you just charge them up from sun or wind.

SG: What does it mean for Binghamton University to have a Nobel winner on its staff?

SW: You should probably really ask the president as to what initiatives he’s going to take. No, it will certainly have a huge impact. The message I’ve already got is “Where’s Binghamton? What is Binghamton?” So everybody’s looking up Binghamton. I suspect Google has had a huge number of hits about Binghamton. I’m sure we’ll get more students. We’ll probably get more Masters students in particular.

SG: Well Professor Whittingham, thanks for coming in.

SW: Thank you.