Science and Technology

The impact of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the science behind it

Professor Fátima Montemor and professor Paulo Ferreira explain the potential of lithium batteries and reveal admiration for the Nobel Laureates, namely John B. Goodenough.

John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of lithium-ion batteries” that revolutionised the world of technology.

The lithium-ion batteries “have profoundly changed our way of life, the way we interact and how we communicate”, says Fátima Montemor, Técnico professor and CQE researcher. “We cannot live without the lithium batteries of our mobile phones, computers, domestic appliances, cars, etc. The age of lithium has arrived”, stresses professor Fátima Montemor. The lithium-ion batteries are lightweight, rechargeable and powerful and can store a large amount of energy in a relatively small space.

Each laureate played a different role in the development of these batteries. In the 1970s, Stanley Whittingham, from Binghamton University, proposed to develop a new technological strategy that would made storing energy from renewable sources more feasible. The relevance of this work to battery development soon became apparent. This led Whittingham to develop a new cathode material, titanium disulphide, that allowed lithium ions to move freely within it. John Goodenough, from the University of Texas at Austin, could nearly double the battery’s voltage, while also increasing energy capacity, allowing for higher voltage batteries with extended life per charge. Based on the work developed by Whittingham and Goodenough, Akira Yoshino, from Meijo University, was able to create a lightweight, hardwearing battery that could be charged hundreds of times before its performance deteriorated. “These scientists played a key role in realizing that the key to store more energy in a more faster and efficiently way lies in the development of new materials”, stresses professor Fátima Montemor, who considers that this Nobel Prize “highlights the relevance of the subject in chemistry and in its related disciplines”.

Paulo Ferreira, Técnico professor and INL researcher, knows very well this branch of chemistry and worked closely with John Goodenough. “My research on materials characterisation and electron microscopy was very important for the research developed by his working group, so we collaborated several times”, recalls professor Paulo Ferreira. They co-authored an article and co supervised a PhD student; they were involved in many activities and they had “excellent and healthy scientific discussions”.

According to professor Paulo Ferreira, this Nobel Prize “shows that this area is important and will have great impact on our future, and also enhances the so-called contextual intelligence”. “John Goodenough is a physicist who works in Chemistry. More and more people are now having a more interdisciplinary and comprehensive attitude and this Nobel Prize rewards the excellent results of this interdisciplinarity”, he adds. This is also “the recognition of John Goodenough’s continuous work and humanitarian character. Besides being an exceptional scientist he is also an extraordinary human being”. “In addition to his contagious joy, he has an admirable dedication, focus, ethics and simplicity” he says.

“This research area has enormous potential”, says professor Fatima Montemor. “We have a lot of people working in this area, both in the development of more efficient lithium batteries and in new alternative energy storage solutions, such as asymmetric batteries and super capacitors based on redox”, she stresses.

Professor Paulo Ferreira’s research group works on atomic structure and composition materials. “I use transmission electron microscopes that allow us to look at these atomic structures. My research area focuses on batteries”, says the Técnico professor.

According to professor Fátima Montemor a lot of things are going to happen in this domain, namely “new materials with new chemical properties that will allow two things: to use less lithium in a battery and the development of alternative solutions to lithium batteries, such as sodium batteries ”. Professor Paulo Ferreira highlights the enormous preponderance of batteries in the so-called areas of the future. “This type of batteries will be key for the development of sensors used in the human body, buildings, cars, and many other applications,” he explains. On the other hand, “if we use solar energy as the main source of energy in the future, we will have to be able to transport it and subsequently store that same energy, and for that purpose we will need batteries”, stresses the Técnico professor.

Professor Fátima Montemor and professor Paulo Ferreira organise today an international conference at INL. “There is a growing interest among the Portuguese scientific community for this area and I think this Nobel Prize will bring new visibility and will captivate investment”, says professor Paulo Ferreira.