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A Nobel Pursuit

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Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

Could South African-born Michael Thackeray yet win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry?

It’s that time of the year again. Presents under pine trees, and prizes in Sweden. The present we want from Eskom is less battery. Back in Stockholm, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to the trio of John Goodenough (UK-US), Stanley Whittington (US) and Akira Yoshino (Japan), who pioneered lithium-ion battery technology. This technology underpins the mobile revolution, electric vehicles, and energy storage. Give us wind and battery farms, and we shall have energy security.

Among those who contributed to the evolution of the lithium-ion battery was South African-born Michael Thackeray, who had been a post-doc student of Goodenough at Oxford. Thackeray was duly acknowledged in the Nobel Prize acceptance speech that another of Goodenough’s former post-doc students delivered on his behalf. 

Three years earlier, Goodenough’s peers, Thackeray included, marked the 25th anniversary of the invention of the battery, and took time out to regret the failure to recognize Goodenough as a Nobel Laureate.  Recognition came late and just in time: Goodenough is 97 years old; his two Nobel peers are both in their 70s. 

At the heart of the interdisciplinary work that created today’s lithium-ion battery is the field of electrochemistry that originated in the studies of Volta and Faraday. The task ahead was to find out how to produce a high-voltage, low cost, durable, safe, and environmentally friendly rechargeable battery. The eventual success, requiring seven decades of work, attests to the importance of use-oriented basic research. The use was clear; the difficulties were many. 

The solution lay in designing crystals, using the 1950s work of Laureates Hoffmann (United States) and Fukua (Japan), the 1970s work on conductive polymers of Laureates MacDiarmid (New Zealand, United States), Heeger (USA), and Shirakawa (Japan), and finally academics Goodenough on cobalt, and Whittingham on stability. Yoshino, a researcher on polymers at the Asahi Kasei Corporation, made his breakthroughs in the mid-1980s as the consumer electronics revolution erupted.

Where was Thackeray in all this? From 1974 through to 1981 he worked on crystallography and electrochemistry at our CSIR, acquiring his UCT doctorate along the way. Then in 1981, he joined Goodenough at Oxford for a two-year post-doc fellowship. In his baggage were samples of two ‘spinel’ crystals, iron magnetite and manganese hausmannite. Against expectation he was able to insert layers of lithium into the hausmannite, thereby producing lithium-manganese oxide crystals that opened the way to the low-cost battery. Until then, expensive lithium-cobalt had done the trick; the lithium-manganese crystals were one-hundredth of the cost. This breakthrough led to Thackeray and Goodenough’s joint US patent.

Thackeray returned to CSIR after two years, working there until 1994 when he moved to the US, becoming the lead lithium battery scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. Thackeray is internationally celebrated for his work, having received medals in the US and South Africa, and an honorary Doctor of Science award from UCT in 2014. He is the highly-cited author of over 200 academic papers, and 60 patents, nine of which were awarded between 1981 and 1993. 

It is notable that the key research was pursued in the three largest industrial nations, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Thackeray was working in a small group in a small innovation and research system. MacDiarmid moved from a small innovation and research system to a large one; Thackeray did not. Yoshino worked for chemical and explosives giant Asahi Kasei, whose expenditure on R&D was perhaps twenty times greater than was Thackeray’s in his CSIR days. After moving to the US, Thackeray’s team invented the lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide cell that underpins present-day battery technology. 

Thackeray duly acknowledged the Nobel Chemistry trio for their pioneering ideas that led to the commercialization of lithium-ion batteries. Could Thackeray, a former student of Goodenough, yet win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, joining the achievement of Nobel laureates Allan Cormack and Aaron Klug, both of whom obtained their master’s degrees in the UCT physics department, and their doctorates at Cambridge? Stay or return, that seems to be the question.

The narrative studies of Cornell University Prof Francis Moon on social networking and its role in innovation point to the necessary roles of tradition, artisanal skills, financial capital, a spirit of change, good governance, and visionary individuals. Where these accrue into knowledge nodes, technological breakthroughs emerge. Thackeray at CSIR lacked the financial and human capital to create a major knowledge node. Goodenough, Whittingham and Yokino could so do.  Thackeray at Argonne could. 

The lesson in this might be that size counts. One has to achieve a critical mass to become a world leader.  

What then our innovation and research system? Two failed attempts at innovation leadership were the Joule electric car and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, both of which were sub-critical. Two examples of world-rank science achievements are astronomy and infectious diseases, both recognized as such in the award of Royal Society Fellowships to Bernie Fanaroff and Salim Karrim respectively. Both fields have enjoyed considerable support from government and donors. These examples beg the question: in what research should scarce resources be awarded, and how will the corpus of researchers be found?  

In other words, how to select, and how to resource? These are the key policy questions that the 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation dodges. No focus, and silence on attracting research skills.  Indeed, were Thackeray still at CSIR, would his team have received the means to achieve the desired end? The answer might well be a flat NO. DM

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