Chemistry Nobel Goes to Lithium Battery Scientists, Omits Rachid Yazami

Nobel prize winners in chemistry for 2019: John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino. Photo from the Nobel Prize.

Frankfurt – The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded its 2019 Nobel prize in chemistry to three scientists for their work developing the lithium ion battery, which powers cellphones, laptops, and other electronic devices. Missing from the recipient list is Rachid Yazami, the Moroccan scientist who invented the graphite anode, which is used in most cellphones’ lithium batteries today.

The three Nobel winners—M. Stanley Whittingham, John B. Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino—all made important advancements in the lithium ion battery. Speaking of the laureates in an interview with Morocco World News, Yazami said he has “great respect for them…. I’m very happy for the three of them.”

However, he continued, “It’s a disappointment for me.” Laughing, he commented that the Nobel committee made phone calls to the laureates on cellphones using his working anode.

During the announcement on Wednesday, October 9, Sara Snogerup Linse of the Nobel committee for chemistry explained, “The laureates developed lightweight batteries with high enough potential to be useful in many applications, truly portable electronics.”

Whittingham developed the first usable lithium battery in the 1970s, but it could explode if recharged too many times, and his discoveries are no longer in use today. Goodenough created a rechargeable battery that used cobalt in 1979, resulting in more stable and manageable batteries. Yoshino greatly increased the safety of the lithium battery by inventing one without metallic lithium in 1985.

Yazami’s greatest accomplishment came in creating the lithium graphite anode, which, according to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), “is the most commonly used anode in commercial lithium-ion batteries today. He explained to MWN that his invention not only made the battery economical, it was safe, and it worked. 

“All other anodes that have been used so far show that either they don’t perform well … either the cycle life of the battery is very short, or the battery is unsafe.” 

Did it come down to one vote?

Because the Nobel committee can only choose three or fewer recipients for each prize, Yazami speculated it came down to a single vote. 

“I think [the committee] had to make a decision, a very hard decision, between Stanley Whittingham [and myself], I’m just guessing.” With a chuckle, he said, “Congratulations to him, and what can I say? I’m so sorry for myself.”

Yazami said he has been expecting the Nobel committee to recognize scientists’ work on lithium ion batteries for 15 years now. At least, he said, the prize came in time for Goodenough, who at 97 is the oldest recipient of any Nobel prize.

The 2019 Nobel chemistry award chose not to recognize Yazami although a previous award celebrating achievements in lithium ion batteries did.

In 2014, the NAE awarded Yazami, Whittingham, Yoshino, and Japanese scientist Yoshio Nishi with the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering for each of their significant contributions to the lithium ion battery.

Yazami noted that the Draper prize focuses more on practicality than the Nobel prize, which is more concerned with celebrating ideas.

At age 66, Yazami said he has hope that his turn will come to receive the Nobel. Although he retired from his position at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), he commented, “A scientist never retires.” With 150 patents, he said he has plenty of work to do seeing if he can turn the patents into practical products.

The future of lithium ion batteries, Yazami said, may be in finding ways to charge batteries faster and in studying the interaction between materials science and artificial intelligence in order to create longer-lasting batteries.

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