Last week 4,000 research scientists and engineers, including many specializing in battery technology, convened for PRiME 2016 at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. This year’s conference marked the 25th anniversary of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery’s commercialization in 1991. Pioneering scientists who helped transform Li-ion technology into the engine that powers today’s mobile devices delivered several symposia presentations.
John Goodenough, whose discovery of the lithium cobalt oxide cathode paved the way for development of the Li-ion battery, delivered the keynote address. Many attendees hoped that during the week the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences would add to the festivities by awarding Mr. Goodenough the 2016 Nobel prize in chemistry. When, instead, the award went to three scientists for their groundbreaking work on molecular machines, some at the conference expressed their disappointment.
Steve LeVine, writing for Quartz, chronicled a few of the reactions in his October 6 article, “The pioneer of lithium-ion has been denied a Nobel yet again, and battery researchers are not happy.” (Full disclosure: Venkat Srinivasan has been an Enovix technology advisor since the company was founded in 2007).
“This irks me to no end. This seems like the ideal year to give it to him,” said Venkat Srinivasan, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “I think molecular machines are all nice, but come on! How can this compare to a technology that has changed the world, and will completely change the way we drive, generate and use energy?”
“A great disappointment,” said Michael Thackeray, of Argonne National Laboratory. Jeff Dahn, of Dalhousie University, said, “I noticed that molecular motors that will never do anything useful received the award.” Of course, it is premature to say who is right about the applicability of molecule-size motors, but the sentiment is clear.
In the past, some have blamed the snub on the fact that the significance of Goodenough’s breakthrough has been its commercial value, and that members of the Nobel committee may regard that as somehow tawdry. But Clare Grey, a former student of Goodenough’s and now a professor at Cambridge University, says that the hangup may be that his work doesn’t necessarily fall squarely within one category.
“Unfortunately his achievements lie at the interface between chemistry, physics and materials science, and for some reason they seem to drop between the cracks of the Nobel committee structure,” Grey said.
For now, supporters of Mr. Goodenough will echo the chant voiced annually by millions of sports fans: Wait ‘til next year.