The History of the Lithium-Ion Battery
You may recall we recently posted about the ongoing lithium-ion battery shortage in 2020. This metallic bundle of energy, which plays such an integral role in our everyday lives, is the most widely-used form of portable, rechargeable power around the planet. Look around you right now. From your smartphone and tablet to an electric vehicle outside, the majority of these items will be using this technology. If your device has an internal, rechargeable battery, it’s likely lithium-ion. So how did lithium-ion batteries become so important to the world as we know it?
History of the Lithium-Ion battery
It all started back in the 1970’s during the oil crisis. By March 1974, the price of oil had risen nearly 300%, having a profound effect on social, economic and political relationships around the world. Stanley Whittingham, a young English chemist working for Exxon Mobile, had decided to explore the realms of a new battery - one that would be able to recharge quickly and, quite possibly, one day end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
It’s fair to say the first attempt was a failure and a potentially dangerous one at that. Pairing titanium disulfide and lithium metal as electrodes, Whittingham encountered substantial difficulties and challenges. None so more than when the batteries short-circuited and caught on fire, prompting serious safety concerns. Not only that, but there were fears that the titanium disulphide could also react to form highly toxic hydrogen sulphide. Combine that with the cost of this element weighing in at an eye-watering $1000 per kilogram and it’s no wonder that Exxon Mobile soon cut the experiment!
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that John B. Goodenough picked up the baton. He had another idea; one that involved experimenting using lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode in place of titanium disulphide. This immediately reaped rewards, with the battery doubling its energy potential and forming the basis for what would become the modern lithium-ion battery cell.
Yet it was when Akiro Yoshino, of Miejo University in Nagoya, Japan, conducted experiments that the foundations for lithium-ion’s future worldwide domination were really set in stone. Swapping petroleum coke as an anode for lithium metal, Yoshino made what was a revolutionary discovery. Not only was the battery significantly safer without lithium metal but the performance was also much more stable. Shortly after, Rachid Yazimo further refined the work of his predecessors, demonstrating the reversible electrochemical intercalculation of lithium in graphite. This is now the most commonly used electrode in lithium-ion batteries.
Goodenough, Yoshino and Yazamo combined their expertise to help Sony and Asahi Kosei commercialise this revolutionary technology in 1991, opening the door for mass production and game-changing battery storage for electrical devices around the world. Over the years, the lithium-ion batteries were continuously refined and adapted, improving safety and performance amongst a host of other features.
13 years on from the start of mass production, Yet-Ming Chiang achieved a huge performance breakthrough. Lithium-ion phosphate particles smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter were used to multiply particle density by over 100 times, resulting in a larger positive electrode surface area and hugely improved capacity. This helped spark phenomenal growth within lithium-ion batteries and by 2011, they accounted for over 60% of all portable rechargeable batteries sold. This further contributed to the cost of the technology falling by a staggering 80% between 2010 and 2016.
The LegacyAs the battle against climate change continues and the need for ever-greener ways of living grows, lithium-ion batteries are set to play a massive role in our future. Electric Vehicles will fuel a huge demand for the raw material, competing alongside major technology providers who use the element in their smartphones, tablets and other devices. In fact, the market is set to be worth an incredible $76bn by 2026. That is why it is now one of the world’s most sought after materials - one so desired it has been referred to as “white oil” as mining companies race to find areas with the largest deposits.
It’s testament to the success of the lithium-ion battery that three of the scientists, John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, all received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. Awarding the prize for their work in developing the battery, the organisation stated, “They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind.” A fitting tribute, indeed.
So there you go, the history of the lithium-ion battery, how it came to dominate the world of rechargeable power and why it’s current scarcity is having an impact on supply chains. We’re continuously monitoring the situation and working with our suppliers around the world to ensure we can continue to mitigate any impact for our customers to the best of our ability.