The pioneer of lithium-ion has been denied a Nobel yet again, and battery researchers are not happy

At the lab.
At the lab.
Image: Darren Carroll
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The cream of the world’s battery-research community have been gathered in Honolulu this week to mark the 25th anniversary of the commercial lithium-ion battery, the little invention that has enabled smart phones, laptops, and the entire consumer-electronics revolution.

But some of those present are decrying the absence of the ultimate stamp of recognition: On Oct. 5, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences bestowed the Nobel prize in chemistry on three pioneers in the field of nano-machines—molecule-size machines that could lead to a miniature new world of getting stuff done.

In Honolulu, that is regarded as a travesty. It denies the prize yet again to John Goodenough, the 94-year-old inventor of the lithium-ion battery’s nervous system—its lithium cobalt oxide cathode, which is part of almost every portable electronic device on the planet. Goodenough invented it in 1980, and Sony commercialized it in 1991.

Goodenough, who still goes to his lab to work on the next battery breakthrough, delivered a keynote speech in Honolulu on Oct. 2 on his latest ideas about metallic lithium anodes. If he had won the prize, he would have set the record for the oldest person to receive the honor.

“This irks me to no end. This seems like the ideal year to give it to him,” said Venkat Srinivasan, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “I think molecular machines are all nice, but come on! How can this compare to a technology that has changed the world, and will completely change the way we drive, generate and use energy?”

“A great disappointment,” said Michael Thackeray, of Argonne National Laboratory. Jeff Dahn, of Dalhousie University, said, “I noticed that molecular motors that will never do anything useful received the award.” Of course, it is premature to say who is right about the applicability of molecule-size motors, but the sentiment is clear.

In the past, some have blamed the snub on the fact that the significance of Goodenough’s breakthrough has been its commercial value, and that members of the Nobel committee may regard that as somehow tawdry. But Clare Grey, a former student of Goodenough’s and now a professor at Cambridge University, says that the hangup may be that his work doesn’t necessarily fall squarely within one category. 

“Unfortunately his achievements lie at the interface between chemistry, physics and materials science, and for some reason they seem to drop between the cracks of the Nobel committee structure,” Grey said.