Pioneers of innovation: The battery that changed the world

Science & technology

If you are reading this on a phone, tablet or laptop, you should probably thank Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham. In the 1970s Dr. Whittingham was working in a battery technology lab for ExxonMobil when he created the very first examples of a radical new technology: the rechargeable lithium ion battery that’s most likely powering your device.

Rechargeable batteries had been around for decades when Whittingham first proposed his version. But the rechargeable batteries du jour were bulky, lead-acid cells—the kind still found in many cars today. And although the disposable carbon-zinc batteries that power your remote control were prevalent, replacing them after each charge of a more energy-hungry device like a computer would be both annoying and expensive.

Early research had suggested that the highly reactive metal lithium could be used to store energy, but Whittingham was the first to figure out how to make it happen at room temperature without the risk of explosion. His original design used titanium sulfide, a 2.5 volt material, and the intercalation design – or insertion of ions in a removable way – was sound and provided the basis for modern lithium ion batteries.

In 1980 Whittingham’s colleague at another institution, John Goodenough, improved on Whittingham’s invention by using metal oxides and higher 4 volt materials, and researchers at SONY developed a new safe anode design for the battery. All of these improvements brought performance up enough to warrant mass production. In 1984, an Exxon and Mobil Affiliate in Japan, Tonen Chemical, invented the micro-porous self-shutdown polyethylene separator film for lithium ion batteries. These inventions helped SONY introduce the first lithium ion battery for consumer cell phones in 1991 in Japan.

The high-energy density lithium ion technology now powers laptops, tablets, cellphones and most electric cars. It even allows solar-powered aircraft like the record-setting Solar Impulse 2 to continue flying after the sun has set. Power grids that are based on inconsistent power sources like wind or solar power are also beginning to rely on massive lithium ion batteries to store energy for times when demand exceeds output.


Dr. Whittingham in 1979 in an Exxon Research and Engineering publication. Right, Dr. Whittingham today as professor at Binghamton State University.Image credits: ExxonMobil, Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham

Whittingham was hired by Exxon in the early ’70s as part of an initiative to expand the energy company’s reach. Whittingham and his team discovered that lithium ions held between plates of titanium sulfide could allow the ions to move back and forth between the positive and negative contacts, creating electricity.

As a result of their work, Whittingham and Goodenough have become some of the most cited researchers in the field of electrochemistry. They are joint 2015 Reuters Citation Laureates for their foundational work on lithium ion batteries. Both pioneers are still teaching and researching; they will be collaborating on the battery of the future, announced by the White House in July 2016. Goodenough is now 93 and a professor at the University of Texas, where he is conducting further research. Whittingham leads a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center at the State University of New York at Binghamton that is advancing the fundamental understanding of electrochemical reactions. He received the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Batteries Lifetime Achievement Award for more than 40 years of continual research and refinement in power storage.


Image credit: ExxonMobil Historical Collection, [identifier number: di_10643-di_10650], The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

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Tags:   innovationlithium ion batteryPioneers of innovation
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