Stanley Whittingham, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry: “Companies are more interested in next month’s stock market than in the long term” | science
If today you can charge a cell phone in less than an hour and use it all day, it’s because it has a lithium-ion battery. The same goes for laptop computers, electric vehicles, and renewable energy storage plants. Although it has been on the market since the 90s, its first version was created two decades ago. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, the American company Exxon (now ExxonMobil) hired chemist Stanley Whittingham (Nottingham, UK, 1941) to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The goal was to start with electric vehicles, and the researcher, passing through Oxford and Stanford, laid the foundations for the component that would change the behavior of humanity.
His work with superconducting materials culminated in the first prototype of a lithium-ion battery, which was functional but not safe. Ten years later, physicist John Goodenough showed that by changing some elements, it could store more energy. A breakthrough perfected by engineer Akira Yoshino, who starred in the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1991.
The three were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the joint development of lithium-ion batteries. In his speech, Wittingan 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 existing batteries, while globally the supply chain for the elements must be changed and recycling encouraged. 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.
Requests. How do you feel when you see the whole world wearing something you invented?
Reply. It’s incredible, but we expected it. When we started working with lithium batteries, the interest was in electric cars. There was no such thing as 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.
s. ExxonMobil was the great support for this invention. What do companies do today?
R was found. When I joined Exxon, most of the big companies had what they called corporate research labs. We did basic research regarding the company. It all disappeared around 1990 and 1995. Companies have to do that today because they’re the only ones who can directly investigate future business, but I think they’re more interested in next month’s stock results than what’s going to happen. in five or ten years. In the 70s, they were more interested in the long term.
s. At this time, no further investment was made to improve lithium batteries because it was considered too early and not necessary, so is it too late now?
R was found. We have to do that now. We can’t burn coal and have to get rid of most of the oil. So we must have new sources of renewable energy and this requires storage. More research needs to be done to make batteries better, safer and more affordable. We have no other choice.
s. In most countries, stored energy comes from coal, oil and gas.
R was found. 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 the solar panels in Morocco and they are laying a very big electric cable there. In Scandinavia, hydroelectric power is used almost entirely. So I think countries will change. The energy problems that have arisen from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine teach us that you cannot depend on other countries for gas and oil. We have to bet on renewables, and I include nuclear energy as one of them. A battery is just a way to store energy until such time as you want to use it.
s. What is the next step you hope to see?
R was found. We want to double the energy density, energy storage of lithium batteries. In the US, it has dropped from $120 per kWh to about $60. We have to get rid of some of the materials we use now, like cobalt. Maybe we should stop using so much 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.
s. Does an increase in energy density increase the risk of explosions?
R was found. Wherever energy is stored it is not particularly secure. If the gasoline engine had been invented today, we wouldn’t allow 20 gallons (75 liters) of gasoline to be put under the car and then put a child seat directly on top of it. We are used to it and the same will happen with electric cars. But the batteries should be safer and we may have to stop buying the very cheap models from some countries.
s. In the honors class after you got a Nobel Prize, you said a good battery can last forever. Are those on the market of good quality?
R was found. The battery is designed to last as long as the device you’re using it on. 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 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 energy saving. It’s the easiest way to help the energy transition
s. Are governments doing enough to regulate them?
R was found. They must insist that any battery handled meets national standards. In the United States, many do not comply with it and fires have occurred because people carry it inside their homes. The controls aren’t great, but they are available in the market and they are cheap. You have to be careful.
s. Is recycling the answer to ensuring supply meets demand?
R was found. In the US the goal is to recycle all batteries and in New York state they are not allowed to be disposed of. The ones on mobile are 100% cobalt, so they’re worth a lot of money. So we should encourage people to recycle them. Batteries are one example, semiconductors another, and also with plastics. Sometimes, even when it comes to recycling, you don’t know if it is actually recycled or if it sends (garbage) to developing countries. The companies that make them should be forced to recycle them at the source. That has to come from governments.
s. Elon Musk is the owner of the largest electric car company in the world. Should you use your influence to encourage recycling?
R was found. I’m not sure he’s into that kind of thing. One of his former engineers has set up a recycling company next to a large battery plant in Nevada (USA). They also claim that it will be a mining company: they mine old batteries to get all the materials they contain. No one has trusted him lately.
s. China has introduced many subsidies to make it cheaper to buy an electric car. Why don’t the United States and Europe do it in a more important way?
R was found. The United States and Europe could sell more cars if they had the necessary batteries and materials. The wait is 12 to 24 months in the United States, it’s a supply chain issue. We don’t have the manufacturing facilities, we don’t have the mines, and we don’t have the trained people either. Many of the large battery factories are South Korean companies, such as LG, Samsung and SK, which are now building factories in the United States. What we really want is for Americans to make their own batteries; I imagine 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 masks during Covid-19. It is happening now with semiconductors
s. Will this problem be resolved in the next few years?
R was found. There is a significant trend in the United States 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 variety.
s. If you were to start searching now, what would you do?
R was found. The most interesting areas of science today are not chemistry or physics, but rather a compromise between these two disciplines. Another is all 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 basic research but with an aim for my work in the future.
s. On a personal level, how can you contribute to this energy shift?
R was found. The first thing is energy saving. The easiest way is to use less energy in everything we do. A person in the United States consumes nearly twice as much energy as a person in Europe. We can certainly reduce. I hope that the people of Europe can also reduce their expenditures. We need more public transportation, so that people don’t drive themselves. When I worked for Exxon, we all used a car. it was normal. It seems that this is no longer happening.
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