WASHINGTON — The Zack Morris phone didn’t stand a chance.
“Portable telephones in the ’80s were bulky, very heavy, and not practical,” says Rachid Yazami. “You could not put them in your pocket at all.”
Yazami, of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, is one of four engineers credited with developing the catalyst to the mobile-device explosion – the lithium-ion battery.
Yazami, along with John Goodenough, Yoshio Nishi and Akira Yoshino have been honored with what’s been called “the Nobel Prize of engineering” – the $500,000 Charles Stock Draper Prize, awarded by the National Academy of Engineering.
The scientists were honored in a ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences building.
“The industry needed very light and small batteries to power cellphones,” says Yazami. “In the last decade, cellphones have been almost reduced in size by half.”
In 1979, Goodenough discovered that by using lithium cobalt oxide as a positive electrode and lithium metal as a negative electrode, he could enable a rechargeable cell.
Soon after Goodenough’s breakthrough, Yazami improved the product by using lithium-graphite layers.
In 1985, Yoshino improved the safety of the battery. In 1991, under Nishi’s supervision, Sony mass-produced and released the lithium-ion battery.
It’s still there, it’s still working
Yazami says the rechargeable battery business has historically stuck with success.
“When you start your car every day, you use a battery that was invented in the middle of the 19th century,” says Yazami. “It’s a lead acid battery, and it’s still there and it’s still working, although it has been improved.”
Thomas Edison patented nickel-iron batteries and envisioned a day when electric cars were the norm. Alkaline batteries hit the market in 1959.
“In 1991 there was a revolution,” says Yazami, with the popularization of the nickel metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries.
Yazami says current batteries are designed for convenient use, but have limitations.
“In some cases you need to charge your battery in 10 or 15 minutes,” says Yazami. “That is possible, but at the same time you cannot do it so often because otherwise you lose the life duration of the battery.”
Typically, Yazami says users charge their devices batteries overnight, providing enough power for an entire day.
“Many people keep charging their battery all the time, so they never get out of juice,” says Yazami.
A powerful future
Yazami anticipates some major improvements in battery performance in the coming years – but there are limitations.
“I have been asked many times ‘Is it possible to charge in 10 seconds and last for 24 hours?,'” laughs Yazami. “Maybe in 30 years from now.”
Yazami expects powering electric and hybrid cars will greatly improve.
“Basically what customers need is to charge their batteries in 10 to 15 minutes and run for 200 or 300 miles,” says Yazami.
“Today that’s not possible, but there are people working on the next generation of batteries which may enable this kind off improvement. I’m very optimistic there will be something discovered in the next five years or so,” Yazami says.