Professor Mike Stanley Whittingham, Distinguished Professor at Binghamton University, NY, USA, was one of the three scientists to receive the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of lithium-ion batteries that created a rechargeable world.
Born in Nottingham in UK, he did his B.A. and D.Phil. at Oxford University. Later he was a Research Fellow in the Department of Materials Science, Stanford University. After a few years, he was employed by Exxon to initiate work on alternative energy storage systems for electric vehicles. This is where he laid the foundation for a LIB by creating an innovative cathode based on layered titanium disulphide that could intercalate lithium ions by combining with lithium anode. At present, he is the Director of NorthEast centre for chemical storage and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Binghamton University.
As part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations at IIT Delhi, Prof Stanley Whittingham delivered a talk on The Origins of the Lithium Battery and Future Challenges/Opportunities through a webnair held on September 17, 2020.
In a wide ranging interview, Prof Whittingham talks to Vanita Srivastava on a host of topics including the future market of electric vehicles.
You are the key figure in the history of the development of lithium-ion batteries. How did you get interested in chemistry and rechargeable batteries?
I got interested in chemistry first at Stamford School in Lincolnshire, England through my chemistry and physics teachers. Then my tutor at New College got me further excited about chemistry. One’s teachers are very important for one’s future. I first got interested in batteries at Stanford University in California, following a key publication from Yao and Kummer at the Ford Motor company on beta alumina.
How did you collaborate with John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino — whose innovations led to the battery's commercialization.
The three of us worked independently of each other. I first discovered the critical intercalation reaction for energy storage at Exxon in 1972. John Goodenough read my paper and determined that lithium cobalt oxide that he was studying for its magnetic properties, might be a better cathode material. Later Akira Yoshino at Asehi who was working on polyacetylene as an electrode, built a graphitic carbon anode that could be combined with John’s LiCoO2.
When you first made your breakthrough on lithium-ion, what did you think at the time about its potential?What is the future for lithium-ion batteries?
We were very optimistic about Li-Ion batteries back in the 1970s and their use in EVs. At that time we were a bit too early for the market. So we went from an idea in 1972 to domination of battery energy storage today. Li-ion batteries will continue to dominate for at least the next 10 years.
Could you share some of the challenges of working with efficient batteries?
I look for opportunities all the time and challenges are just there to be overcome. We need to further increase their energy density to 400-500 Wh/kg, and at the same time decreasing their cost and making them even safer.
What word of advice would you give to young chemists or STEM graduates entering the workforce?
Do something that gets you excited; don’t take a job just for the money, you will be disappointed.
Is there something you look forward to working on now?What are your future plans for research?
My future research would be on even better batteries, and helping to ensure that they are used to their maximum potential to reduce global warming and create a cleaner and healthier environment/world.
How fast do you think the transition to EVs will happen?
That all depends on political will and the desire of the consumer. For example, India could legislate that all 2 and 3 wheelers must be all-electric like China has done and Vietnam is thinking of doing. London, New York or Delhi could legislate that all in-city delivery vehicles be all electric; similarly with buses.
What are the major barriers that need to be removed before EVs come into full force?
Cost and range for most people.
Is there any technology that you find most promising for long-duration storage?
Depends how long. For seasonal load shifting pumped hydro is the best choice.
How do you see India as a market for lithium ion batteries and EVs?
India is a great market – you just need the will and the incentive. India is also a great market for solar + battery, particularly where there is no grid.