Stanley Whittingham, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry: ‘Companies are more concerned about next month’s stock market than 10, 20 years out’

One of the inventors of the lithium battery argues that energy transition depends on saving energy, recycling, changing the supply chain and reducing consumption

Stanley Whittingham, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
Stanley Whittingham, at the Areces Foundation in Madrid.Andrea Comas
Emanoelle Santos

If today you can charge a cellphone in under an hour and use it all day long, it is because your device has a lithium-ion battery, which are also used in laptops, electric vehicles and renewable energy storage plants. Although it has only been on the market since the 1990s, the first lithium-ion battery was developed two decades earlier. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, the US company Exxon (today ExxonMobil) hired British-born chemist Stanley Whittingham to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The goal was to start work on electric vehicles, and the Oxford- and Stanford-educated researcher laid the foundations for the technology that would change the behavior of humankind.

Whittingham’s work with superconductors resulted in the first prototype lithium-ion battery, which was functional but not very safe. Ten years later, physicist John Goodenough demonstrated that, by changing some elements, it could store more energy. Engineer Akira Yoshino improved on that breakthrough in 1991 when he created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery.

Whittingham, Goodenough and Yoshino received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the joint development of lithium-ion batteries. In his speech, Whittingham stressed the importance of interdisciplinarity and international collaboration in finding solutions for the world’s needs. The main technical challenge is improving the capacity of today’s batteries, while on the global level, changes must be made to the supply chain and recycling must be encouraged. “Right now, some of the materials travel 50,000 miles from the mine to the finished product, which makes no sense at all,” says the researcher, who stopped by Madrid’s Ramón Areces Foundation in November to deliver a lecture on climate change and the critical role of energy storage.

Question: What’s it like to see everyone using your invention?

Answer. It was great, but we never expected it because when we started on lithium batteries, the interest was in electric vehicles… There [was] no such thing as iPhones. There [was] really no such thing as small computers. Computers took over the whole house. So, it’s really the communications revolution that got lithium batteries going.

Q. ExxonMobil was the major backer behind this invention. What are companies doing today?

A. When I joined Exxon, most of the major companies had what they called corporate research labs. We did fundamental research but related to the company. Those have all gone now. [They] all closed down in about 1990, 1995. But the companies need to do it. They’re the only ones who can do the research directly related to their next business. And I think that what’s happened is the companies [are] all worried about the stock market price next month and what’s going to happen in five years or 10 years… I’m much more worried about 10 years, 20 years out.

Q. Back then, there wasn’t greater investment in improving lithium batteries because it was considered too early and unnecessary. Is it too late now?

A. We have to do it now. We can’t burn coal and I think we have to get rid of most of the heavy oil. So, we have to have new renewable energy, which means you’ve got to have storage. So, we have to do the research for us to make the batteries better, safer and lower cost. We have no choice.

Stanley Whittingham, before his conference at the Areces Foundation in Madrid.
Stanley Whittingham, before his conference at the Areces Foundation in Madrid.Andrea Comas

Q. In most countries, the energy that is stored comes from coal, oil and gas.

A. Well, you have to have green energy in the first place. So, New York State does not generate any electricity from coal anymore. It’s my understanding Britain is going to get their electricity from solar [panels] in Morocco. They’re putting a very large electric cable in there. Scandinavia is almost all hydropower. So, I think countries are going to switch over. And clearly, as you’re learning in this troublesome [period] with Russia and Ukraine, you can’t rely on other countries for gas and oil. So, you’re going to have to go [to] renewable [energy], and [when I say] renewable, I am including nuclear as a clean fuel. A battery is just a means of [storing] energy until you want it.

Q. What do you expect to see next?

A. Well, we still want to double the energy density, the energy storage of lithium batteries and get, in US terms, from about $120 per kilowatt hour down to about $60. We have to get rid of some of the materials we use now. We can’t use cobalt. We probably have to take a lot of the nickel out. And we have to better the electrolyte, which is the liquid inside the battery. We have to make that safer so it can’t catch fire.

Q. Would increasing the energy density increase the risk of explosions?

A. Whenever you store energy, it’s not particularly safe. So, if you were to invent the gasoline engine today, you would not be allowed to put 20 gallons of gasoline under the backseat of your car, then put your child’s car seat right on top of the gasoline. We would not allow it. Now you’ve got used to it And it’s going to be the same thing with electric vehicles. But we have to make the batteries safer. We may have to stop buying super cheap batteries from certain countries where they know they’re not safe.

Q. In your Nobel lecture, you said that a good battery can last forever. Are the ones on the market now good quality?

A. You design the battery to last as long as the device you’re using it in. So, you would not want to pay for a 20-year battery to put in your phone where you’re going to change it every three or four years. But when you change it, you have to make sure it’s a really good battery because a lot of the batteries you buy, what I call fake batteries, there’s really no electronic protection inside them, so they can catch fire.

“[In] what I call fake batteries, there’s really no electronic protection inside them, so they can catch fire.
Nobel Laureate Stanley Whittingham

Q. Are governments doing enough to regulate batteries?

A. The government has to insist that any battery in your devices meets the national standards. And in the US, they’re not; they don’t meet the test standards. So, you have to be careful now in the US, because people charge them inside their homes and the controls aren’t good.

Q. Is recycling the solution to ensure that supply meets demand?

A. Yeah. Certainly, the goal in the United States [is] that all batteries will be recycled, and in New York State, you are not allowed to throw them away. They have to be recycled. The batteries in your phone [are] 100% cobalt, so they’re worth a lot of money. We were trying to encourage people to recycle. Batteries are one example. Semiconductors are another, [as are] all the plastics. If we recycle them, we’re not really recycling. We send them to third world countries, which is not good. The companies that make the plastic should be forced to recycle them in the country or the region where they made them. [That] has to come from the government.

Q. Elon Musk owns the world’s largest electric vehicle company. Should he use his influence to encourage recycling?

A. It’s not clear to me he’s interested in that kind of thing. One of his [former] engineers has done stuff with what they’re calling a recycling company right next to this big battery plant in Nevada. Also, they claim they’re going to be a mining company. So, they’re really mining old batteries for all the materials inside the batteries. But now no one trusts him.

Q. China has provided a lot of subsidies to make it cheaper to buy an electric vehicle. Why don’t the US and Europe do that in a more significant way?

A. North America and Europe could sell far more cars if they had the batteries and materials. In the US, [there’s] 12 months to 24 months waiting time now to get a good electric vehicle. It’s a supply chain issue right now. We don’t have the manufacturing facilities, we don’t have the mines. And the other thing [is that] we don’t train people in this area. So many of the large battery factories in North America are companies from South Korea like LG, Samsung and SK; [now] they’re all building manufacturing plants in the US. But in the US we want to have batteries made in America by Americans, and I expect [European] governments want batteries made in Europe by Europeans. We want to get away from this global supply chain, which doesn’t really work. We saw that during Covid in the US [when] we couldn’t get masks. We now can’t get semiconductors. We’ve got to regionalize everything.

Q. Will this problem be solved in the next few years?

A. There’s a huge push in the US now to become more independent of certain parts of Asia. We can’t have 100% of something coming from any one place. And it doesn’t matter where that place is. We’ve got to be more dispersed…more secure.

In the US we want to have batteries made in America by Americans, and I expect [European] governments want batteries made in Europe by Europeans
Stanley Whittingham

Q. If you were starting your research now, what would you do?

A. So, the exciting areas of science these days are not in chemistry, they’re not in physics, they’re in between these disciplines. The other big exciting [field] is clearly the whole biomedical area, which is somewhere between biology, engineering, chemistry and medicine. So, those are the two big areas that I think [are] exciting. I like to do what I call focused research; it’s fundamental research, but there is a goal down the road.

Q. On the individual level, how can one contribute to this energy transition?

A. [The] first thing is [to] save energy. The easiest way is using less energy to save what we use today. Take this case in North America, where every person in North America uses roughly twice as much energy as every person in Europe. So, we can certainly cut back. And I expect that people in Europe can cut back too. We need more public transportation. We need people not all driving their own cars all by themselves. When I worked for Exxon, we all carpooled. It was normal. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore.

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