By Justin Gural
on 3.16.12
Photo by Sony

The first lithium-ion battery was discovered around 35 years ago by an American chemist working for Exxon Research and Engineering. Their goal was to set out and create a new battery system for their fleet of specialized machinery. Little did they know, the discovery would eventually spark a global revolution for powering the mobilizing human race.

To learn about how lithium-ion changed the electronics industry forever, keep reading on the next page.

After all, the energy density of lithium-ion is typically twice that of the standard nickel-cadmium, which provides an obvious ‘lighter and tighter’ competitive advantage related to its energy-to-weight ratio. Its advantages, however, certainly came with its own set of challenges.

As lithium is the lightest of all metals, the material and its heightened electrochemical potential has been a focal point for scientists dating back to the early 1900s. The innovation of applying lithium ions into batteries — which creates compact energy by efficiently bouncing the negative and positive electrodes back and forth — was groundbreaking at the time, and research into the technology continues do breach new levels even today.

After all, the energy density of lithium-ion is typically twice that of the standard nickel-cadmium, which provides an obvious ‘lighter and tighter’ competitive advantage related to its energy-to-weight ratio. Its advantages, however, certainly came with its own set of challenges.

Decades of safety issues plagued the rechargeability of the power source. The technology in its infancy was susceptible to violent reactions from temperature changes, and one man found out the hard way — suffering facial burns from exposure to a volatile lithium metal battery. And in one form, metallic lithium, the battery actually exploded when put in contact with water.

Sony was the first to announce a commercial Li-ion battery in February 1990, after seven years of highly-focused scientific development involving six different research teams. First unveiled as the power source for Sony’s CCD-TR1 8mm Camcorder, a vintage gem in its own right, this newfound — and finally safe — rechargeable battery technology was quickly adapted as the energy source behind their personal audio players. Ranging from the iconic Walkman and Discman players, to the short-lived MiniDisc player, consumers were getting their first fix of battery freedom.

Keizaburo Tozawa, Sony’s ‘Godfather’ of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, wasn’t finished yet. In 1995, after receiving numerous awards and accolades from Japan’s technology circle, his team was the first to succeed in creating a lithium-ion battery for use in electric vehicles.

Today, auto manufacturers like Nissan are using Li-ion batteries for its multi-award-winning 100% electric, zero-emission Nissan Leaf. The vehicle is ranked as the most efficient EPA certified vehicle, and it’s setting the coveted benchmark for breaking the petroleum-addicted mold.

“More than 22,000 LEAFs are on the roads globally, having driven more than 30 million miles,” said Brian Carolin, senior vice president, Sales & Marketing, NNA. “Anyone in the country can opt for a transportation solution that does not harm the environment, provides a pathway to energy independence, and doesn’t use a single drop of gas.”

Green energy utility giants such as AES are also utilizing the Li-ion technology, through implementation of large-scale battery arrangements. When connected to high-production wind farms and solar arrays, the batteries provide a balancing act that can store the produced energy and then selectively power the utility grid as needed.

According to Sony research, 2.4 billion Li-ion cells were in active use in 2007 — more than 50% being used in cell phones. As of 2011, according to the International Telecommunication Union, there were 6 billion mobile subscriptions — equivalent to roughly 87 percent of the world population using some form of Li-ion technology.

Li-ion batteries are perhaps the most critical component of our culture’s high demand for mobile, rechargeable energy consumption. You likely have at least one — or six in our case — within arm’s reach right now, and there’s no sign of lithium progression slowing down anytime soon.

To that end, we say keep charging. The future looks bright.

Written by Justin Gural. Additional contribution by Ben Bowers and Eric Yang


Read More: Previous Breakthrough Series Posts »