Our phones, laptops and some electric vehicles are celebrating something special today: their batteries. 30 years ago, four Oxford University researchers have developed the first experimental lithium ion battery for the first time.
It’s been a long journey until they got the way they look and perform these days, and many of them even exploded or leaked. Nevertheless, it’s still a long way to study their behavior and the various ways lithium can be combined to yield its best.
A plaque is to be mounted at the entrance to Oxford University’s Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, where prof. John Goodenough, dr. Phil Wiseman, dr. Koichi Mizushima and dr. Phil Jones put the basis of what’s now in the pockets of almost every human, with ages from 3 to 100 and that’s going to stay for a little while more.
“The idea just came out of the woodwork,” dr. Wiseman says. “When you see children in Vietnam using mobile phones i’s odd to think their devices use the compound we investigated three decades ago. Lithium-ion batteries in cars are also based on the same concept. Our paper was the starting point.”
The Oxford group took on the task ‘kicking around ideas on a blackboard,’ recalls Dr Wiseman, then Professor Goodenough’s research assistant.
“We looked at it in a different way using lithium cobalt oxide at the positive terminal and pulling the lithium out; this produced a huge cell voltage, twice that of the Exxon battery. It was this spare voltage that allowed alternatives at the other terminal where Exxon had been forced to use lithium metal which was fraught with problems.
“Instead lithium-ion material could compose both electrodes. Mind you, I always thought the cobalt oxide would be too reactive; we also had a fire in the lab and had to call the fire brigade.”
Their first findings on lithium ion batteries were published in 1980, but it was only ten years later that the first unit was assembled and sold commercially by Sony, who seized the research in the first place and made the technology better.