"We're riding a hot wave at the moment. My students are clearly happy, because there are tons of jobs out there."
Professor M. Stanley Whittingham is at the forefront of the movement to design the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. But that's nothing new for the man who holds 16 patents, is number 17 in the Greentech Hall of Fame, and invented the technology 40 years ago.
Whittingham started his career strong, winning the Young Author Award from the Electrochemical Society in 1971 and quickly landing a job at Exxon, where he rode a wave of interest in alternative energy. It was the nation's first energy crisis. Drivers had to wait in line for hours to get gas and industries and governments poured money into research. His team's mandate at Exxon was simply to explore energy sources other than petroleum.
He found one when he invented the lithium-ion battery. Today, it's the heart of just about every personal device — laptops, tablets, smart phones, MP3 players, etc.
He quickly moved up the corporate ranks, but by the time he made it to division manager of chemical engineering, he realized that every promotion took him one step farther from his true passion: research. At the same time, the ground was shifting beneath him as industry wasn't planning as far into the future, instead concentrating on the short-term bottom line. And politicians, not seeing immediate payoffs, cancelled funding.
So, to continue his research, he left industry. Besides, he didn't like firing people.
"That's not the business I want to be in," he says in his quiet English accent with a smile. (If you close your eyes, you would swear Michael Caine was in the room.)
Through the '80s and early '90s, interest in alternative energies plummeted even further as gas remained cheap. But around the turn of the millennium, gas prices spiked and interest picked up. After the election of President Obama, interest hit an all-time high and Whittingham, as professor and director of both the Binghamton University Materials Science and Engineering program and the Northeastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage (NCCES), has more external funding for his research than ever.
Whittingham and his students are trying to understand one of the more perplexing mysteries of batteries — why do they store only about 25 percent of the energy that calculations show they are capable of reaching? Whittingham is convinced that fundamental research — looking at the chemistry, the physics and the materials themselves — will produce the next big breakthrough.
"The actual material isn't being fully utilized, and we don't know why," he says. "If we understand the mechanism, we can molecularly engineer the material so we get faster chemical reactions while keeping them safe."
Keeping the technology safe is a theme that quickly becomes apparent when talking to Whittingham. A great fear of researchers and industry is that a terrible accident might bring battery research to a grinding halt. But safety can be hard to define.
"Most people out in the real world don't understand that if you want to store energy, it's by definition unsafe," he says. "It's energy and it wants to get out. We tell people that if you had invented the internal combustion engine today, you would not be able to commercialize it. You wouldn't be allowed to carry that 20-gallon bomb around in the back of your car."
A major researcher in battery technology today is the auto industry as each company races to produce the most energy-efficient cars possible. But despite recent advances, Whittingham doesn't see the American auto industry going all-electric anytime soon. The batteries are too big, too heavy and way too expensive.
The current crop of all-electric cars can only travel about 40 miles before having to recharge. That's fine for a daily commute or city living, but a family trip to the mountains would be out of the question, especially in an environment like Binghamton, with its steep hills and cold winters. There's been some talk about establishing battery-changing stations, but industry is unlikely to agree on a standard battery pack.
Instead, Whittingham thinks that cars like the Chevy Volt are the next generation. Instead of being purely electric or using gasoline to augment the engine, the Volt uses gasoline to drive a generator, which charges the batteries. It can drive about 400 miles on its 9-gallon tank, but driving to work would be nearly free because it can travel about 35 miles before it needs to charge, which costs about $1.50.
Despite the challenges, Whittingham says staying with gas-only vehicles isn't an option anymore. Some say that oil production peaked around 2005, at the same time that demand began skyrocketing in countries like China and India.
"World petroleum production is going down," he says. "The petroleum century is gone. So we've got to find other sources of energy."
Last Updated: 12/16/12