When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three scientists who developed lithium-ion batteries, it noted the importance of their research in making “a fossil fuel-free world possible,” with electric vehicles and renewable energy storage helping cut emissions that drive climate change.
The great twist in the story is that the Nobel recipient cited for making the “first functional “first functional lithium battery,” M. Stanley Whittingham, came to his discovery in the 1970s as a research scientist in the laboratories of Exxon, the corporation that later would lead the vastly successful effort to deny climate change. ExxonMobil faces a trial in New York later this month for allegedly misleading shareholders about the risks climate change poses to the company—and their investments.
Whittingham was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday along with John B. Goodenough, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and Akira Yoshino, a chemist at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan.
InsideClimate News interviewed Whittingham about his pioneering work for an article about how Exxon had developed a prototype hybrid car by the late 1970s. In 1981, Exxon delivered a second prototype to its partner Toyota, a gas-electric hybrid, 16 years before the Prius came to market.
Exxon in the 1970s was a different company than the one politicians, environmentalists and the public later came to know as leading the charge to deny climate science.
The company ran its own ambitious in-house research into climate change and how it was driven by fossil fuel use. At the same time, Exxon’s leaders explored broadening the company’s mission from exclusively oil and gas to renewable energy, and it hired top scientists from academia to pursue a range of blue-sky research, including Whittingham, who was at Stanford University.
Here’s an account by Whittingham about his work at Exxon from our 2016 article on the company’s hybrid car project:
Hired in 1972, Whittingham said he was given free rein “to work on anything energy-related, provided it was not petroleum or chemicals.” His new boss worked on superconductivity, the property of materials to conduct electricity with zero resistance.
A breakthrough came quickly. Six months after Exxon hired him, Whittingham showed for the first time that lithium ions could be inserted between atomic layers of the compound titanium disulfide (TiS2), and then removed without changing the nature of the compound. The process, known as intercalation, created chemical bonds that held a tremendous amount of energy. And it led Whittingham to make a prototype rechargeable battery.
Further, his battery functioned at room temperature. For years, corporate and government labs had researched ways to make rechargeable batteries, but the compounds they used could only generate electricity at high heat. That made them potentially explosive.
Around 1973, Whittingham pitched the idea of rechargeable battery research to members of Exxon’s board of directors.
“I told them we have an idea here that basically could revolutionize batteries,” said Whittingham, now a distinguished professor of chemistry, materials science and engineering at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Within a week, they said, ‘Let’s invest money there.’ In those days, they were extremely enlightened, I would say.”
A short time before ICN interviewed him, Whittingham and a former Exxon colleague published a peer-reviewed paper that examined whether some of the small lithium-ion batteries they had made 35 years earlier still worked. They found that the batteries had retained more than 50 percent of their original capacity.
“If you make the battery right,” Whittingham told ICN, “it will last for a very long time.”
Neela Banerjee is a Washington-based reporter for Inside Climate News. She led the investigation into Exxon’s early climate research, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service reporting and the recipient of nearly a dozen other journalism awards. Before joining ICN, she spent four years as the energy and environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times‘ Washington bureau. Banerjee covered global energy, the Iraq War and other issues with The New York Times. She also served as a Moscow correspondent with The Wall Street Journal. Banerjee grew up in southeast Louisiana and graduated from Yale University.