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Lithium-Ion Batteries in Data Centers Are Just the Latest Fruits of Nobel Prize Winning Research

Jeff Kessen •

Appreciating the Foundational Chemistry that Enabled Lithium-Ion Batteries in the Data Center

On October 9, 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists— John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino—for their work on lithium-ion battery technology.

What’s interesting about this recognition is that, unlike most Nobel Prizes in the sciences, this one wasn’t based on new developments that have advanced the technology in the last several years. The three were recognized for foundational work first performed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Battery Technology Takes a Leap Forward

Back then, Dr. Whittingham got the ball rolling when he started experimenting with using lithium in rechargeable batteries due to its lightweight and easy release of electrons. He eventually paired the lithium with titanium dioxide to create the first functional lithium-ion battery. It was a dramatic step forward in performance, delivering about ten times as much energy as a comparable lead-acid battery at a much lighter weight. But it wasn’t quite ready for commercialization.

Dr. Goodenough built on the work of Whittingham by substituting cobalt oxide for titanium dioxide in the cathode to eliminate charging problems with the original design. Dr. Yoshiro added the final piece of the puzzle when he developed a method for embedding the lithium ions between layers of carbon, significantly enhancing battery safety.

Commercialization Enables Widespread Innovation

The first commercial application was in the Sony Camcorder, and most people are probably most familiar with the technology from their experience with electronics. Without lightweight, long-lasting lithium-ion batteries, the laptops, tablets, and mobile phones we use every day would be much bulkier and require more frequent charging than the sleek devices we have become accustomed to.

The technology is also a key enabler of the growth in renewable energy and electric vehicles, providing the energy storage required to make intermittent wind and solar energy reliable and extending the range of electric vehicles. In fact, electric vehicles have become the largest application for lithium-ion batteries today.

The scale and safety requirements of the automotive industry have both driven down prices and imposed new safety standards, opening the door for the use of lithium-ion batteries in the data center. This represents one more step in the continued expansion of the technology these three pioneers developed more than thirty years ago.

Changing the Economics of Data Center Energy Storage

The data center is an interesting application for the technology. While there are certainly benefits to the lighter weight and smaller footprint of lithium-ion batteries in data center applications, those benefits are not nearly as compelling in this application as in electric vehicles and personal electronics.

Instead, economics is primarily driving the growing use of lithium-ion batteries in the data center. Prices have now dropped to the point where the extended life lithium-ion batteries provide—eliminating multiple replacement cycles compared to lead-acid batteries—makes them a more economical alternative than the status quo. As this trend continues, lithium-ion batteries will increase their penetration and could become the dominant energy storage technology in the industry.

That’s something the three Nobel recipients, who were performing their research at a time when mainframe computers still dominated the IT landscape, never envisioned. But it is just one more example of the long-term impact of their work. For that, we offer our thanks and congratulations to Drs. Whittingham, Goodenough, and Yoshiro.


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