Lithium-ion batteries to dark matter, the remarkable breakthroughs that were awarded the Nobel Prize this year

The discoveries have shaped our understanding of the universe and have made technologies such as mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles a reality


                            Lithium-ion batteries to dark matter, the remarkable breakthroughs that were awarded the Nobel Prize this year

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm announced the names of this year's Nobel Prize winners earlier this week.

Each year, the Laureates take home 9 million Swedish kronor ($910,000), a sum released from funds provided by the late Alfred Nobel, a Swedish businessman and scientist.

This year, the Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino for developing lithium-ion batteries, which opened up avenues for a fossil fuel-free society.

Also basking in the glory this year are astronomers James Peebles—for his work on the evolution of the universe—and Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, for their discovery of a planet beyond our solar system. The trio was awarded in the physics category.

In the physiology or medicine category, William G Kaelin, Sir Peter J Ratcliffe and Gregg L Semenza bagged the award for figuring out how cells respond to varying levels of oxygen in the body.

Lithium-ion batteries

John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino were awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2019 (Illustration: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

From mobile phones and laptops to electric vehicles, these batteries have found widespread use since their discovery. “They [lithium-ion batteries] have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind,” the academy said.

Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, Whittingham of Binghamton University, and Yoshino of Meijo University will be sharing the prize money.

It was the 1970's oil crisis that spurred Whittingham's interest in developing techniques that could lead to a fossil fuel-free society. Later, Goodenough and Yoshino made significant contributions.

Talking to The Times earlier this year, Goodenough, who also happens to be the oldest Laureate, said, "At the time we developed the battery it was just something to do. I didn’t know what electrical engineers would do with the battery. I really didn’t anticipate cellphones, camcorders and everything else.”

Dark matter and exoplanets

James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 2019 

The press release issued by the Academy stated that Peebles, the Canadian astronomer, was rewarded for his work that shaped what we understand of the universe today. "The [his] results showed us a universe in which just five per cent of its content is known, the matter which constitutes stars, planets, trees – and us. The rest, 95 per cent, is unknown dark matter and dark energy. This is a mystery and a challenge to modern physics," read the press release.

The other discovery to make its mark this year was the discovery of the first exoplanet by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz.

"This discovery started a revolution in astronomy and over 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way. Strange new worlds are still being discovered, with an incredible wealth of sizes, forms and orbits," the Academy said.

Oxygen levels in the body

Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine went to William G Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J Ratcliffe and Gregg L Semenza

How do our bodies know when oxygen levels deplete or rise? The answer to this question lies in the work of Kaelin, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Ratcliffe, director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London; and Semenza, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

"Thanks to the groundbreaking work of these Nobel Laureates, we know much more about how different oxygen levels regulate fundamental physiological processes," said a press statement from the Academy.

"Their work helps us understand how our bodies react in low-oxygen levels, for instance, during intense exercise. The oxygen-sensing machinery also plays a role in other physiological functions such as production of new blood cells and the immune system. "Their discoveries have also paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases," the Academy noted.

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