Development of Our Future Energy Solutions Earns A Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Every time you charge your smartphone, you can thank Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham. The same goes for your laptop, the power tools in your shed and the solar panels on your house.

And when there’s a power outage, you can be grateful to Dr. Whittingham for the uninterrupted power supply that protects the data stored on your office IT server and keeps life-saving medical equipment running at your local hospital, all without a blip. 

On October 9, Dr. Whittingham was one of three scientists to receive the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. The other winners were John B. Goodenough, the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan.

"I am overcome with gratitude at receiving this award, and I honestly have so many people to thank I don’t know where to begin," Dr. Whittingham said. "The research I have been involved with for over 30 years has helped advance how we store and use energy at a foundational level, and it is my hope that this recognition will help to shine a much-needed light on the nation’s energy future."

The three scientists contributed to one of the most important inventions of our generation: the lithium-ion battery. Its development was the basis of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The World’s Most Powerful Battery

Lithium-ion batteries provide an alternative source of energy that makes it possible to envision a future free of fossil fuels, with the potential to reverse the course of global warming. The lightweight battery is powerful, rechargeable, and the foundation of all wireless electronics. 

The modern story of the lithium-ion battery began in the 1970s when Dr. Whittingham developed the first rechargeable lithium battery. Dr. Whittingham had studied a phenomenon known as intercalation, in which charged ions could attach to solid materials within atom-sized spaces, changing the material’s conductivity.

Lithium was the ideal element for intercalation. It was lightweight, worked at room temperature, and most important, was the element most willing to release electrons. The flow of electrons from the negative electrode (anode), to the positive electrode (cathode), is what produces power in a battery.

Dr. Whittingham’s intercalation battery stored lithium ions in spaces in the cathode. When the battery was in use (discharging), the lithium ions flowed from the anode to the cathode, giving the battery its power. When the battery was charging, the lithium ions flowed back again, which restored the battery’s power.

His work became the basis of subsequent discoveries that resulted in modern-day lithium ion batteries that are inside today’s wireless technologies.

The Path to the Nobel

Dr. Whittingham came to Binghamton University in 1988 after 16 years at Exxon Research and Engineering Company and Schlumberger-Doll Research. He had received his degrees in chemistry at New College, Oxford and come to the U.S. as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  

Throughout his career, which began during the energy crisis of the 1970s, Dr. Whittingham has worked on developing technologies that could result in a world less dependent on fossil fuels. He holds the original patent for the use of intercalation chemistry in high-power density, highly-reversible lithium batteries that became the basis for subsequent discoveries.

Since his arrival at Binghamton, he has received continuous support for his research, with over $7 million in federal research grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Dr. Whittingham is also director of the NorthEast Center for Chemical Energy Storage (NECCES) at Binghamton, one of the nation’s Energy Frontier Research Centers. The nation’s 42 EFRCs are tasked with accelerating the scientific breakthroughs needed to expand clean energy research and the transformation of the 21st Century energy economy.

For his work, Dr. Whittingham has received multiple accolades including the 2015 Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate that recognizes work that has made a significant impact on the scientific community. Three years later, he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.

"It is my hope that this recognition will help to shine a much-needed light on the nation’s energy future."

- Professor M. Stanley Whittingham

In Good Company

Winning the Nobel puts Dr. Whittingham in the company of 12 other SUNY professors who have received the prestigious international award, including Toni Morrison (1993, Literature), Paul C. Lauterbur (2003, Medicine) and the most recent winner, Joachim Frank (2017, Chemistry).

"Today, New York celebrates the work of Professor Whittingham and all past winners within our great state," Governor Cuomo said in a release announcing the award. "His work has many far-reaching applications, and perhaps the most important is how his invention is critical to New York’s goals to reduce carbon emissions and achieve 100 percent zero carbon electricity by 2040."

Chair of SUNY Board of Trustees Dr. Merryl H. Tisch said, "Professor Whittingham is a role model for researchers across the world, and we are proud he leads and inspires his peers and students within Binghamton University and across all of our SUNY campuses. His Nobel Prize exemplifies the importance of public higher education and we congratulate Professor Whittingham and join all of SUNY today in celebrating his great accomplishments."

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson said, "Winning the Nobel Prize is an outstanding accomplishment earned by so relatively few within the research world. Distinguished Professor Whittingham has worked diligently on his craft for 30 years, and at the same time he has dedicated his time to help others pursue their research through his past work with the SUNY Research Foundation and on campus. Today, I am honored to call him a Nobel Prize winner. He shows our students what can be accomplished."

"Binghamton is very proud that the Nobel committee has chosen to award Distinguished Professor of Chemistry M. Stanley Whittingham with the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on lithium-ion batteries," said Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger. "Professor Whittingham’s work has fundamentally changed the way the world stores and utilizes energy, making possible a revolution in consumer and industrial technologies. For nearly thirty years, Professor Whittingham has been one of the most visible and productive researchers at the University, and all of us at Binghamton congratulate him on this great honor."

Published October 2019