“It’s great to see all the changes, how it’s impacting everybody’s lives”
Telephone interview with Stanley Whittingham following the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 9 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
In the interview, recorded soon after he heard news of his Nobel Prize, Stanley Whittingham describes the special research culture that existed at Exxon labs, where he first developed the lithium-ion battery in the early 1970s.
Stanley Whittingham: Hello?
Adam Smith: Oh hello.
MSW: Just one minute please, I’m just stepping out of the meeting room.
Adam Smith: My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. I gather I’m talking to you in France, is that right?
MSW: No, I’m in Ulm, Germany at the moment.
AS: Oh right, okay. So how did you hear the news of the Prize then?
MSW: I think the committee called me up about 11.15 this morning.
AS: And you’re at a scientific meeting, or …?
MSW: Yes, I’m at a, very appropriately, a battery meeting in Ulm.
AS: You were the first to develop lithium-ion batteries when you were at Exxon in the early ‘70s. How does it make you feel to see their ubiquitous presence now?
MSW: Oh, it’s great. The field started off small and it has just mushroomed since then. It’s great to see all the changes, how it’s impacting everybody’s lives.
AS: They’ve truly changed the world.
AS: It was a very special research environment at Exxon in those days, wasn’t it?
MSW: Yes, it was very special. Exxon wanted to be the world’s top energy company, and they essentially said to the whole group of us “Do great research, get it published, don’t work on chemicals that are [inaudible]” and we started working on batteries and many other things at that time. They treated researchers like drilling an oil well. Only 10% work out, but if it’s looking promising they’ll put a lot of money into it, and they did.
AS: That’s lovely. That sounds like the much talked-about environment they used to have at Bell Labs, letting people get on with it.
MSW: Yes, and you’ve got to realise that Exxon’s labs were 20 miles from Bell Labs’ labs.
AS: So it was a culture of the time in a way.
MSW: Yes. There was a lot of competition between the two labs.
AS: Given the grand challenges we face now, I suppose people might say we need that environment again.
MSW: Yes, I think so, but it’s going to be very difficult to recreate that environment. Most companies are beholden to the stock market.
AS: So what was the secret of Exxon being able to do that at the time?
MSW: It’s just a different attitude at that time, I think. And you can look at a whole range of American companies, you know General Electric, DuPont, IBM: all had fundamental research labs, which looked out ten years or more.
AS: Now, with so much focus on becoming a fossil (fuel) free world, there’s really no way of doing it unless we make the necessary improvements in battery technology. Are you hopeful that things are going very much in the right direction at the moment?
MSW: I’m very hopeful. I think it’s happening faster than anybody expected.
AS: Well, I must say you sound very calm.
MSW: Well, I don’t think it’s got home yet.
AS: Have you managed to at least tell your family the news?
MSW: Some of my family I’ve got hold of; others are still sleeping.
AS: Well, it’s been a huge pleasure to speak to you, thank you very much indeed. And see you in December.
MSW: Thank you very much.
AS: Thank you.
MSW: Okay, see you, bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.