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Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, University of Oxford

By Alan Dronsfield

Oxford landmark plaque RSC presentation

The latest presentation of a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) National Chemical Landmark plaque took place on 30 November 2010 in the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory of the University of Oxford. It commemorated the laboratory as the site where John Goodenough and his team developed the cathode material that rendered feasible the construction of the first lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Today these devices power mobile phones, laptop computers, portable hand tools and electric vehicles. The plaque reads:

Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory where in 1980, John B. Goodenough with Koichi Mizushima, Philip J. Jones and Philip J. Wiseman identified the cathode material that enabled the development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. This breakthrough ushered in the age of portable electronic devices.

At the ceremony greetings were received as a pre-recorded speech from Professor Goodenough from his laboratory in the USA. Present at the ceremony itself were Drs Mizushima, Wiseman and Jones.

Some 100 friends and guests were welcomed to the Laboratory by Peter P. Edwards, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and by Dr Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the RSC. Peter spoke briefly of the great contribution that John Goodenough and his team had made to science, industry and society by their discovery. This theme was expanded upon, historically, by Dr Phil Wiseman who presented a personal perspective of the events that led up to the discovery of the lithium ion rechargeable battery and the discovery itself.

The plaque was presented on behalf of the RSC by Richard Pike and received on behalf of the Department and University by the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Andrew Hamilton.

The forerunner to the discovery being commemorated was the sodium-sulfur battery. This had a high energy density, long cycle life and could be fabricated from cheap materials. However it needed an operating temperature of 300-350°ree;C, which limited its uses essentially to non-mobile applications such as grid energy storage. M. S. Whittingham demonstrated a system that could operate as low as room temperature in 1976. Lithium was reversibly inserted into, and extracted from, a TiS2 positive electrode

But this was not ideal as the lithium metal used to redeposit across the cell rather than ending up “plating” the electrode, thus causing electrical shorts and limiting the number of operational cycles.

The Oxford team used lithium in conjunction with lithium cobalt oxide that overcame this problem, whilst maintaining the attractiveness of room temperature operation

Their findings were published in Materials Research Bulletin 1980, 15, 783-789. The report concluded with the statement that “Further characteristics of the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of this new system are being made.” Little did they envisage that thirty years later that almost everyone from five years upwards would have an application of their work in their pockets: the ubiquitous mobile phone, powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

John B. Goodenough received a B.S. in Mathematics from Yale University in 1944 and a PhD in Physics in 1952 from the University of Chicago. During his early career he was a research scientist at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory as part of an interdisciplinary team developing random access magnetic memory. During the late 1970s and early 80s he continued his career at the Inorganic Chemical Laboratory, Oxford, where he identified and developed LixCoO2 as the cathode material of choice for the lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Although the Sony Corporation is responsible for the commercialisation of the device (first marketed in 1991) he is widely credited for its original identification and development. At present he is working at the University of Texas, Austin, where he is developing a new class of iron phosphate materials to replace the more costly cobalt components in rechargeable batteries.

The Historical Group was represented at the Award by Bill Griffith and Alan Dronsfield.