Whittingham delivers historic Van Vlack Lecture

The 2019 Nobel laureate talked about the history, limitations and future of the lithium-ion battery to a record crowd in Hill Auditorium.
Whittingham delivers historic Van Vlack Lecture

Dr. Stanley Whittingham answers questions following his lecture, "Overcoming Climate Change: The Critical Role and Challenges of Energy Storage" in Hill Auditorium on May 23.

After being postponed two years due to the pandemic, 2019 Nobel laureate Stanley Whittingham presented his public lecture portion of the 2020 Van Vlack Lectureship on May 23 to approximately 500 people in Hill Auditorium - a lectureship attendance record.

Whittingham's presentation, "Overcoming Climate Change: The Critical Role and Challenges of Energy Storage" began with the grim reality that climate change (which he calls 'global messing up') is an issue that can no longer be ignored.

“We can’t roll back climate change fifty years," Whittingham said. "All we can do now is hold it where it is and make sure it doesn’t get any worse.”

An important player in the fight against climate change, of course, is the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery, the development of which Whittingham pioneered while working at Exxon in the early 1970s. 

"Back then [corporations] looked at research like oil wells," said Whittingham. "Some will work, the majority won’t, but let’s invest and see what happens."

What happened was that the lightweight, rechargeable and powerful lithium-ion battery came to dominate the market. Today they are used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles; they can even be found on the international space station.

Though it's been fifty years since he helped develop the lithium-ion battery, which is currently made up of a mixture of lithium, manganese, and cobalt, Whittingham is still pioneering improvements to it as part of the Battery500 Consortium. The group is currently working to remove cobalt (due to child labor and cost) from the make-up of the battery.

"There's a huge opportunity for more research by chemists, materials scientists and physicists to come up with new materials, and for engineers to design batteries so the active materials take up more space and the stuff you don’t need take up less space. That’s what we’re trying to do today." 

As for the future of lithium-ion batteries, Whittingham said that they will still dominate the market for the next 5-10 years. In order to build better energy ecosystems to combat climate change, innovations like clean mining and creating regional supply chains will be critical. The overall key to overcoming the obstacles, though, Whittingham concluded at the end of his talk, is the need to fully embrace the reality that science is interdisciplinary and international. Only then, he urged, can barriers be broken down to allow for true collaboration.

"Researchers must understand other cultures and understand how they can work together," Whittingham concluded.

Click here to watch a recording of the lecture. 

Click here to view photos from the lecture and dinner event, which took place immediately after the lecture at the U-M Museum of Art (UMMA).


Dr. M. Stanley Whittingham received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019, along with John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino.

Dr. Whittingham earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford University. In 2018, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering, among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. Last year, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, which is composed of the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. He is currently a distinguished professor of chemistry and of materials science and engineering at Binghamton University (within the State University of New York system) – where he helped to establish the Materials Science and Engineering graduate program.