In the early 1990s, researchers at Argonne Building 205 began to complain publicly that the management here was too depressing. The U.S. Department of Energy hopes to customize various inventions, and at the same time arranges excessive safety training, these two factors combined “result in a decline in autonomy.” The laboratory is no longer as mysterious as before—because the Argonne National Laboratory now carries out so many non-nuclear projects, it no longer enforces all confidentiality regulations. Of course, most of the work is kept secret, because many basic inventions are still being gestated, but generally do not include content related to national security. Scientists do not have to wear color-coded shoes as in the past to prevent nuclear contamination. They can bring food and coffee into the office, and their office is also equipped with air conditioning.
However, if you want to enter Argonne or walk around Argonne, you have to wear a lab badge. These badges are hung around everyone’s neck with a rope. Many badges are printed with the English words “COUNTERINTELLL GENCE”. Next to the badge is usually a green photo of the scientist when he was young, so the entire badge looks a bit unharmonious. Chamberlain looks like a California surfer in the badge photo, with a slightly golden haircut from the back. In fact, his hair has turned white a long time ago.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with “showing off” old photos of yourself like Chris Johnson. Johnson spent his entire career at Agung. Now, he is already running for five, and he is in good shape, but he used to be very thin, and he still had a well-trimmed fashionable moustache. You can imagine this scenario: about 15 years ago, at the Argonne National Laboratory, an ambitious young scientist and lead researcher Thackeray co-invented NMC.
Johnson is a native of Ohio, and he is humble. His father is a high school chemistry teacher, and the house is full of science textbooks. However, the father did not force his son to study chemistry. Father said to Johnson: “I just hope you feel that this is not a job. You get up in the morning and go to work.” Therefore, Johnson was not a “scientific control” when he was a child. He is not curious about the test tubes in the garage, nor can he use a microscope to observe insects in the garden. However, when he was in high school, he was infected by a science teacher. After graduating from high school, he entered the University of North Carolina to study chemistry. In the electrochemical laboratory, Johnson felt like a fish in water.
In 1991, Johnson entered the Argonne National Laboratory as a postdoctoral assistant. In the same year, Sony Corporation of Japan just put lithium-ion batteries into commercial use.
When Johnson was reading scientific journals, he discovered that everyone is just like everyone else. These papers focused on the trend of the time-the lithium cobalt oxide cathode invented by Goodenough, which was adopted by Sony’s new battery. No one seems to be able to come up with new ideas, they are just thinking about how to improve lithium cobalt oxide, even if they get their wish, this scientific success seems to have “imperfections.” However, a chemist came into his sight: Mike Thackeray. Thackeray returned to work in South Africa after completing a short-term research project at Oxford University. Thackeray introduced his alternative-manganese oxide in the paper. He believes that the cost of manganese oxide is lower than that of lithium cobalt oxide. According to Johnson, it seems that only Thackeray can publish some original insights and provide supporting data.
At this time, Thackeray’s boss in South Africa informed him that they would terminate his lithium-ion research project. Despite Sony’s unexpected success, his laboratory still believes that lithium-ion research will not generate enough sales in the future. Thackeray refuted this view, but the laboratory’s plan was set and he had to look for other projects.
In 1993, Thackeray attended a battery conference in Toronto, Canada, and met the eloquent American Don Withers. Withers is the senior manager of the battery department at Argonne National Laboratory. He and Thackeray agreed that the market for lithium-ion batteries will definitely expand. However, it is a pity that although the two have insights into this trend, they are helpless: South Africa has given up lithium-ion research and made a big mistake, while Argonne is very passive in this field and clearly lags behind its competitors. This national laboratory in Chicago continues to study high-temperature sodium-sulfur batteries, but has not advanced any new technology projects related to lithium-ion batteries. Withers felt that they had a common cause before them. So why didn’t Thackeray consider moving to Chicago and introducing Argonne into the palace of lithium-ion science?
Thackeray seriously considered this suggestion, and after a year or so, he accepted Withers’ invitation.
Thackeray’s wife, Lisa, is afraid of moving to a strange place. In the new environment, the couple and their three daughters do not have an acquaintance. Thackeray described the scene when he arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in February that year: “The American Airlines plane was about to land, and the wheels touched the ground within a few feet, but the pilot activated the throttle and turned the plane down. Ascended into the air again. The inside of the plane was suddenly silent. Lisa looked at me next to me and slowly said, “Thank God! We can finally go home! “
They did not go home. The plane didn’t return home, just circled in the air and landed unharmed.
After passing through customs security, the Thackeray family saw an Agung staff member holding a sign. He greeted the Thackeray family and gave each girl a one-dollar silver coin. This move dispelled Lisa’s various worries about living in a foreign land.
Thackeray immediately went to work. Chris Johnson became his protégé. He took Johnson to an international lithium battery conference in Boston. After arriving at the hotel lobby, Johnson saw many scientists greet Thackeray. Johnson said: “Everyone knows Mike. Everyone came to him and said how are you? I learned that you are now working at Argonne National Laboratory. I was thinking, wow, he is worthy of being a heavyweight in this field. . Our partnership will be perfect.”
Thackeray began to introduce his plan to Johnson. If you reduce the amount of cobalt in the cathode and replace the expensive cobalt with a sufficient supply of manganese, you can make a cheaper and safer battery than Goodenough’s industry benchmark compound. However, the amount of manganese added should be limited, because manganese will gradually degrade and at the same time damage the performance of the battery. On the contrary, it is necessary to use both manganese and nickel at the same time to protect manganese and prevent it from degrading. In the end, an ideal compound can be obtained: nickel manganese cobalt. The combination of the English initials of these three elements is NMC. Of course, this compound must also be matched with lithium.
Although this formula is eye-catching, it has not achieved a new breakthrough. The problem is that the principles of physics have worked, destroying Thackeray’s blueprint. Experiments have proved that if too much lithium is allowed to shuttle between the two electrodes that generate electricity, the three elements of nickel, manganese, and diamond will be solved like Gudinaf’s formula.
Thackeray remembered his scientific research experience in South Africa. He remembered that there was a compound of lithium, manganese, and oxygen, the atomic structure of which was Li2MnO3, and the electrochemical properties were inactive. Researchers usually treat this substance as an impurity and ignore it. However, Thackeray’s instinct now tells himself that there is a lot of article here. He feels that this material has some unknown uses. His idea is to add a little Li2MnO3 to the lithium-coated MNC. Thackeray suspects that this change may consolidate the structure of the NMC to ensure the stability of the cathode during battery charging and discharging.
In 1994 and 1995, Johnson used the formula described by Thackeray to create a battery pack for experiments, and embedded lithium into it. He found that he could allow more than half of the lithium to shuttle between the two electrodes, and at this time the entire structure of the NMC was kept very compact. It is as if the cathode has been waiting for Li2MnO3 to provide stability for it.
Johnson knew Thackeray’s instincts were right. Even though Li2MnO3 itself is not active after being added to the cathode, the manganese and lithium contained in this compound will continue to swim and stay inside the NMC like a pillar. These atoms support the structure of the NMC, and the lithium inside the NMC begins to shuttle.
From the outside, NMC and Li2MnO3 seem to be rough houses. The floor and ceiling are composed of oxygen atoms, while the walls are composed of nickel, cobalt, and manganese. Scientists call this structure a “lattice.” Since NMC and Li2MnO3 have similar crystal lattices, Johnson can easily fuse the two at the nanometer level.
If the only obvious result now is that the compound becomes more compact, Johnson may have been immersed in thinking training. However, stability is not their only success criterion. If considering the practical application of electric vehicles, NMC is better than Goodenough’s lithium cobalt oxide, his own lithium iron phosphate or Thackeray’s manganese spinel cathode. NMC is not only cheaper and safer, but according to Thackeray’s estimates, the extra lithium in this system helps improve its performance. The double lattice allows the entire NMC structure to extract 60% to 70% of the lithium before decomposition, which is much higher than Goodenough’s lithium cobalt oxide (50%). After adding 10% to 20% of lithium, NMC generates more energy.
Thackeray called this invention “layers” or “mixtures.”
This double lattice also has a big advantage, it can help Thackeray to continuously improve NMC. He can replace the elements in the lattice structure with other metals to improve the performance of NMC.
However, now NMC has powerful functions. It solves a major problem faced by batteries competing with gasoline power: Most people hope that electric cars have more than one advantage. Long-distance driving is an important capability of electric vehicles, but this is not enough; drivers need more advantages. They want the electric car to start immediately – as long as they step on the gas pedal, the electric car can continue to accelerate and reach higher speeds. They require electric cars to be safe and worry-free. If the battery of an electric car has a potential explosion hazard, it will only be discarded by consumers (not to mention regulators). The last advantage may be the most difficult to achieve: the pursuit of long-distance driving and stable acceleration, while ensuring the safety of the battery.
The range of electric vehicles using the Argonne NMC formula is 40 miles. This technical indicator is very critical, because it is the average mileage driven by American drivers every day. If you don’t reach this target, don’t even think about putting electric vehicles on the road. NMC can also meet the needs of Americans for rapid acceleration. In addition, manganese can ensure the safety of the battery system.
In short, the performance of NMC is better than the cathodes manufactured by various national laboratories in the United States so far, and some people even say that it is the most outstanding cathode in the world.
This breakthrough has doubled Thackeray’s confidence. He seems to be full of curiosity about a small part of the elements related to the battery on the periodic table, and tirelessly “tugging” them, but he does not yet know the potential value of future research results. . No one can predict the business value, it always seems unpredictable. Why is Goodenough’s lithium diamond oxide still a standard lithium ion formula after so many years, and is still used on almost every mobile phone, tablet, and laptop on the planet? The scientific research achievements of others, even Thackeray’s spinel, could not surpass Gudinaf’s achievements. This shows that the success rate of commercialization of a new invention is extremely low. However, Thackeray still has the opportunity to surpass Gudinaf and have the opportunity to approach the ultimate goal: to challenge the source of the internal combustion engine. Otherwise, Thackeray would not be interested.
He began to organize patent applications for NMC.
In May 2000, Thackeray flew to Lake Como in Italy to participate in a two-week lithium-ion conference. The location of the conference was very meaningful-Alessandro Volt was born in Como in 1745. Eight months ago, the city held an event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Volt’s invention of the battery. More than 200 experts from 30 countries around the world participated in this event. However, Thackeray did not feel the significance of history from this meeting in May, which disappointed him. First of all, the city can only be reached by train from the convention center, which is very remote and the environment is average.
Thackeray made a report in the opening session of the meeting. The next morning, he attended a lecture hosted by four New Zealand scientists. The lecture lasted 30 minutes, and the speaker passionately and mysteriously introduced a new battery solution combining chromium and manganese oxide. After the meeting, Thackeray passed a poster exhibition. The person in charge of the exhibition was a New Zealander who had just hosted the lecture. His name was Brett Amundsen, a crystallographer, and he looked frustrated. Amundsen said, “You will know what I’m doing in the future.” Although others in Como didn’t know, Thackeray was a leader in manganese spinel research at Oxford University, and he knew what was happening in New Zealand. How important this scientific research result is.
At that time, Thackeray understood what the New Zealander did-“invading” his turf.
What makes Thackeray upset is that the New Zealander is as close to the Li2MnO3 research goal as he is. They are trying to inject lithium to improve the performance of the cathode. New Zealanders use a chromium manganese oxide formula for the cathode.
Thackeray was very worried and quickly called Chris Johnson in Chicago.
“Hurry up, do a few more experiments, and then draft an invention report,” Thackeray said on the phone, “we are going to apply for a provisional patent.” The patent he has been preparing is not yet ready. However, it needs to be prepared as soon as possible, so that Thackeray can be ahead of the research team in New Zealand.
The reason for this tactic of applying for a “provisional patent” is that Thackeray is confident in his own ideas and at the same time “competing” with competitors, but there is still a lack of sufficient data. After applying for a provisional patent, the applicant can prove his claim within one year. If sufficient data is found at that time, a complete patent can be obtained, and the patent date is the date of the original application. Johnson immediately put down his work and began to implement Thackeray’s instructions. After Thackeray returned to Chicago, the two began to manufacture battery packs for testing and collect electrochemical data to prove that their batteries had better performance. Then, they sent the data to the outside lawyer in the laboratory. Thackeray used a chart to illustrate the broad advantages of cathodes composed of nickel, manganese, and a third other metal. A year later, they formally filed an application and got their wish and obtained a permanent patent.
They successfully defeated the New Zealand team. In fact, Thackeray does not need to worry, because the New Zealand scientific research team only submitted its own patent application after the “long” six months after the Lake Como conference. Thackeray found it ordinary after reading their application. He thought to himself that the New Zealand team “ignored the overall situation.” They don’t seem to know that the key to this material lies in the interaction of these two lattices, that is, the use of Li2MnO3 to stabilize the structure of NMC. Thackeray believes that scientists in New Zealand may think that this formula is a hodgepodge of several homogeneous metals, rather than a mixture of two structures, but the latter is the core of this formula.
In addition, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada also filed a competitive patent application. Thackeray didn’t seem to take this patent either. He commented, “They didn’t figure out the specific research direction.”
In Thackeray’s view, other patent applications are similar to “the practice of Japanese researchers”, that is, “claiming a universal invention.” If you do this instead of accurately describing your invention, then your claim is in front of you. The challenge to patents may be defeated. The trick of patent application is to be concise and clear, so that what you claim will not be wrong. He made a vivid analogy: “They meander along a road and don’t know which direction to go when they encounter a turn.” In this way, you have to “solve key issues.” Thackeray imitated the executives of British mining companies in South Africa and took a rigorous approach. Those executives expressed commercial interest in Zebra batteries, and invited him and other battery scientists to have lunch at a bar to “brainstorm” how to protect the results. They drank beer and wine while drafting patents. Thackeray noted that the South African patent is expected to take effect.
A few years later, when automakers began to produce electric vehicles, they realized that the battery formula, cost and other related information used in electric vehicles were vital to industry competition, so they kept such information highly confidential. However, General Motors publicly announced that the company has purchased the license rights for two major inventions (NMC and manganese spinel) of Thackeray for use in the integrated battery of Volt electric vehicles. Volt is General Motors’ first electric vehicle brand, launched in 2010, and is a plug-in hybrid vehicle. General Motors stated that the ideal goal of the first-generation Volt electric car is to reach a range of 40 miles. However, GM’s interest does not stop there. Argonne National Laboratory promised to provide an advanced version of NMC, which can be combined with the improved anode and can increase the driving distance of electric vehicles. General Motors is waiting for the upgraded version, hoping to launch a new electric car on the basis of the new version.
The addition of Thackeray adds a strong competitiveness to Argonne’s battery laboratory. Soon after, it was at the forefront of lithium-ion research. Next, the laboratory will recruit a new member to create a “duo” in the battery industry that spans both scientific and commercial fields.