Lithium Batteries Finally Get their Due with Nobel Prize Win

, Senior energy analyst | October 9, 2019, 12:57 pm EST
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Today’s award of  the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to the scientists that created lithium ion batteries marks the common heritage of mobile communications (laptops and smart phones), electric vehicles, and a new era in energy storage for our electric system.

The award recognizes John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for discoveries that made lithium ion batteries possible.  These discoveries in turn made possible the commercialization of the nascent technologies of portable phones and electric cars. Lithium is the lightest of the metal elements, and making batteries lightweight is important for mobile uses, such as laptops, phones and vehicles.

Take a look at the amazing changes offered by this one innovative technology.

Storage in our hands

The scientific work leading up to commercialization required roughly 20 years, from Whittingham’s demonstration of a lithium battery in the 1970’s to the refinements that allowed the first products using lithium batteries in 1991. Makers of cellphones and laptops began with the electronic and software systems, and embraced the better performing, lighter batteries as they became available.  The changes in our economy and the uses of data since the 1990’s due to this combination of technologies are as closeby as the phone in your pocket.

Storage on the road

Electric vehicles are the second big beneficiary of this science.  Just as better batteries aided the revolution in communications and data, the new batteries have really helped 21st century electrification of transportation. Cleaner transportation did not begin with these new batteries. Electricity made subway systems viable, and the replacement of diesel buses has brought better air quality. Going forward, EV sales in the US increased 81% in 2018, and global EV sales rose over 70%.

Now with the electrification of taxis, passenger cars, delivery trucks by the millions, we are seeing a shift away from fossil fuels. The auto industry has been using gasoline for 100 years, and the adoption of electric drive is just getting started.

Storage on the wires

The Nobel announcement referred to the ability of lithium batteries to “store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.” The electricity supply itself is changing, and like the cellphone and the EV, this is aided by lithium batteries. Consumers don’t see electricity, and only the people in the field are seeing the fascinating role of storage in the electric grid. But this too is a game changer with enormous, profound implications. Battery storage is accelerating the switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy supplies, mainly wind and solar.

Utilities in much of the US, and in other parts of the world, are building wind and solar because these are the cheapest forms of electricity available.  In many announcements, the utilities are pairing their transition to renewable energy with battery storage, batteries using lithium ion technology.

Solar energy in the U.S. was pretty exotic when my 14-year old was born. The grid in the U.S. had 90 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic technology . Now in the US, 69,100 MW of solar supplies the grid, including over 2 million rooftops.  Wind power has also grown up in just a few decades. Iowa, recognizing that it imported all its fossil fuel, set a goal in 1983 to have 105 MW of wind. Now, over 33% of the electricity in Iowa comes from 8,957 MW of wind in the state. The wind industry as a whole has grown to almost 100,000 MW.

Battery storage for the electric grid using lithium batteries has evolved in just 10 years. High value uses of batteries on the grid came first. In 2009, the far northern corner of Chile’s electric grid was limited, and a 20 MW battery system was added to a power plant site to provide reserves required for reliability. The batteries sitting, ready to respond, freed up existing generation to produce more energy.

Hawaiian grid needs were also met that way for the first time in 2009.  In 2012, batteries and flywheels began providing fast and continuous adjustments to the balance of supply and demand on the grid.

Since 2016, new needs for peak hours that would formerly have been met with new power plants have been met by battery storage instead. Today, as utilities plan for decarbonization and renewables growth, storage on the grid is becoming a normal choice.

Thank the scientists!

The Nobel Prize recognized 20 years of scientific development. Now our consumer products, our transportation, and the electricity we use everyday for almost everything show the benefits of that scientific work.  Long live the lithium battery!

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  • Rao Konidena

    I agree with you, Mike. Lithium ion batteries are finally getting their due. Until this Nobel prize, I was not even aware or thought about a Nobel prize for Lithium ion batteries. Its amazing what these scientists did, find that ion to stabilize Lithium for our daily applications. Rao

    • Mike Jacobs

      Rao- Thank you for the comment. As you know, the adoption of a new technology in the utility sector doesn’t happen quickly. The positive response across so much of the utility sector for battery storage is very encouraging. Good things do come from long hours of careful searching for an answer.