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Japan's Akira Yoshino among trio of scientists awarded Nobel Prize in chemistry

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

The 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to a trio of scientists for the development of lithium-ion batteries — Japan’s Akira Yoshino, American John Goodenough and Briton Stanley Whittingham — the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Wednesday.

Yoshino, a 71-year-old honorary fellow with Asahi Kasei Corp. and a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, is credited as one of the pioneers in developing the widely used power source, which has become indispensable for cellphones and other electronic devices today.

Lithium-ion batteries are also an important technology in enabling the world to move away from fossil fuels.

The Nobel Committee said: “Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives and are used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles. Through their work, this year’s chemistry laureates have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”

“I’m very excited now. … People in Stockholm are expecting that lithium-ion batteries will become one solution to environmental issues,” said Yoshino at the beginning of a hastily arranged news conference in Tokyo.

“I’m pleased that lithium-ion batteries have been awarded in that context. I also hope that (the prize) will greatly encourage young researchers.”

He said he already called his wife and told her about the prize, leaving her surprised.

American Goodenough, at 97, becomes the oldest winner of a Nobel Prize. He holds the Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, while Whittingham is a distinguished professor at Binghamton University.

Whittingham developed the first functional lithium-ion battery in the early 1970s. Goodenough doubled the battery’s potential in the following decade.

Then Yoshino eliminated pure lithium from the battery, making it much safer to use. He created the first commercially viable lithium-ion battery in 1985.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe telephoned Yoshino Wednesday evening to congratulate him.

“As a Japanese, I’m proud of you for developing something that has changed people’s lives,” Abe was quoted as telling Yoshino on the phone. “It is a very good message to the world that a Nobel laureate has been selected from Japan.”

Yoshino’s students at Meijo University also congratulated him.

According to Shunya Iwatsuki, 22, the professor often tells his students, “If you hit the wall, you should thank God for placing it in front of you — that’s when something new is born.”

“Now I’ve realized he is a great professor,” Iwatsuki said.

Takumi Hayashi, 22, said it doesn’t matter if Yoshino won the Nobel Prize. “With or without the prize, my respect for him will never change. He is always thinking about how science can change the future of mankind,” the student said.

The trio will share an award of 9 million kronor ($920,000), a gold medal and a diploma. They will receive them at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896, together with the winners of other prizes. The peace prize will be handed out in Oslo, Norway, on the same day.

Last year, the honor went to U.S. scientists Frances Arnold and George Smith and British researcher Gregory Winter for developing enzymes used for greener and safer chemistry and antibody drugs with less side effects.

Arnold was just the fifth woman to clinch chemistry’s most prestigious honor since Marie Curie was honored in 1911.

This year’s Nobel Prize season kicked off on Monday with the medicine prize and continues Thursday with awards for literature.