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A scientist worthy of several Nobel Prizes

Today there is a lithium battery in almost everyone's pocket. However, there are still many challenges associated with their materials. This is evident to Maarit Karppinen who has collaborated with one of the scientists awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Litiumioniakkuja löytyy melkein jokaisesta taskusta. Kuva: Aleksi Poutanen.
Today there are lithium-ion batteries in every home - in one form or another. Photo: Aleksi Poutanen.

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the developers of lithium-ion batteries: John GoodenoughStanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino.  

Maarit Karppinen, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Aalto University, has collaborated with Goodenough and thinks that the win was only a matter of time. Lithium-ion batteries enabled the use of portable electrical devices such as mobile phones. Thanks to lithium, they are lightweight and have a high energy density.

‘I think that Goodenough deserves more than one Nobel Prize. He has had an amazing scientific career and developed the foundations for understanding magnetic compounds,’ Karppinen says. 

The laureates worked separately but knew of each other’s research. Their work helped to create the materials needed for the lithium-ion battery, resulting in a functioning and safe battery that was commercialised by Sony in 1991. The production of the battery required long-term research, with the first scientific publications on this topic being published in the 1970s.

‘We need basic material research. Its results will not show in commercial applications immediately the following year. But without long-term research, new inventions cannot be achieved,’ Karppinen points out.

According to Karppinen, research work requires perseverance and courage to look for completely new materials. By tailoring materials in just the right way, it is possible to find features and functionalities that are still unknown.

‘New material combinations enable the development of applications for the new generation,’ as Karppinen puts it.

Aalto distinguished professor Maarit Karppinen
Professori Maarit Karppinen.

Batteries still use the same lithium and cobalt based materials that were made commercially available in 1991. There has been an attempt to develop replacement materials for lithium and cobalt, but it has proven to be a difficult task. 

The amount of metals in the soil is finite and there are also many ethical challenges involved in their production. For these reasons, both alternative materials, and the recycling of battery metals will be necessary in the future.

‘The majority of cobalt in the world comes from Congo. It has been identified as a critical material in the European Union in terms of supply.’

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