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3 Researchers Win Nobel Prize In Chemistry For Work With Lithium-Ion Batteries


Batteries usually don't get noticed unless they're running low. Today, though, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry honored batteries, specifically lithium-ion batteries. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports those batteries helped usher in a revolution in how people interact with electronic devices.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: John Goodenough normally works at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, he was in England. Its Royal Society was presenting him with the Copley Medal, probably the oldest scientific award in the world. That's where the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences reached him to say they were giving him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I asked Goodenough if he remembered the first time he ever had a cell phone or other device with a lithium-ion battery in it.

JOHN GOODENOUGH: No, I don't remember when because I've never carried one of those things in my pockets (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That hooting laugh is famous among his fellow lithium-ion battery researchers.

BRETT LUCHT: I mean, you hear his laugh, and you will not forget it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Brett Lucht is a chemist at the University of Rhode Island. Goodenough is the oldest scientist ever to get a Nobel, at the age of 97. Lucht says he is still going strong.

LUCHT: I was at a lithium battery meeting with John Goodenough probably two or three years ago in Berkeley. And he asked more questions than anybody else in the room. And every single question that he asked was an excellent question.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Goodenough shares the Nobel Prize with Stan Whittingham of Binghamton University State University of New York and Akira Yoshino of Japan. All three made advances that let lithium ions flow back and forth in a controlled way, producing a powerful, lightweight, rechargeable battery. Lucht says the Nobel Committee honored the right people at last.

LUCHT: I mean, this is something that the lithium-ion battery community has been looking forward to for the last several years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Take Marca Doeff, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

MARCA DOEFF: I turned on NPR. And they announced it. And I jumped out of bed I was so excited.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says lithium-ion batteries first became commercially available in 1991. Soon after, cell phones and all kinds of other small electronic devices became commonplace.

DOEFF: That's really a tangible outgrowth of the work that these Nobel Prize winners did many years ago.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Back in the 1970s and '80s - she says these days, researchers are trying to tweak lithium-ion batteries to make them better for use in cars or storing energy from sustainable sources like wind or the sun.

DOEFF: There's a lot of effort now to try and figure out how to charge these batteries really fast without damaging them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And people are constantly looking for new kinds of battery systems beyond lithium that might be even better. For now, though, when it comes to batteries, lithium-ion technology rules. With the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded, that's it for this year's science Nobels. And no women won. Nine men shared the chemistry, physics and medicine prizes. That didn't surprise Liselotte Jauffred at the University of Copenhagen. She studied gender bias in the Nobels.

LISELOTTE JAUFFRED: The gender ratio within the Nobel laureates do not reflect the gender ratios within the field.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She wishes the Nobel Prize committees were more open about, say, how many women get nominated because the Nobels are so high-profile and have such an impact on how people see science.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXYGEN'S "STAR POWER I: OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.