Lithium-Ion Batteries — South Africa’s Gift to the World

I wonder if the Pretoria-born engineer/entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is so rapidly changing the world, knows that he can thank another Pretoria-born South African for helping him make his dreams a reality?

Elon Musk is a visionary whose unique concepts are changing the world in which we live, and nothing illustrates this better than his Tesla electric vehicles.

One of the most critical concepts of Musk’s Tesla is the fact that it has revolutionised motor vehicles by replacing fossil fuels as a power source with an electric motor powered by lithium- ion batteries rather than an engine and gearbox.

None of this would have been possible without the timely development of a battery as a cheap, safe and reliable source of energy.

Enter Michael Thackeray!

Michael Thackeray was born in Pretoria in January 1949, and attended Waterkloof House Preparatory School, coincidentally the same primary school that Elon Musk would attend a couple of decades later.

He then attended Michaelhouse School in the Natal Midlands, and upon graduation, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1968 to study chemistry. In the course of his studies, he became interested in crystallography and it’s potential for practical applications in materials science and structure-property relationships.

Thackeray subsequently obtained his M.Sc and Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Cape Town, and after graduation, he moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) based in Pretoria, in August 1973, where he joined the Crystallography Division. Significantly, the CSIR was at the forefront of international research at that time, and was the driving force behind the development of the world’s lithium batteries that played a huge role in the development of laptops, cell phones and later, electric cars. Almost immediately after arriving at the CSIR, Thackeray made a significant advance, quickly unravelling two light-atom structures that had eluded other researchers.

From 1973 until 1977, Thackeray was a researcher in the National Physical Research Laboratory in Pretoria. From 1983 until 1987 he was Group Leader of the Ceramics Division and from 1988 to 1994, he was Research Manager of the Battery Technology Unit. Lithium electrochemistry fascinated him, and the first generation of room temperature, primary lithium cells were being produced at that time.

In 1981, Thackeray took a sabbatical for a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship, under the supervision of Professor John Goodenough at Oxford University, who was considered a world expert on lithium as an energy storage source. Thackeray hoped to learn the art of room temperature lithium electrochemistry, and Goodenough had recently pioneered the discovery of LICoO2 as a lithium insertion electrode.

Once again, literally within days of his arrival. Thackeray made a remarkable discovery that would eventually have significant impact on the development of lithium-Ion batteries.

In his baggage, were samples of two ‘spinel’ crystals — iron magnetite and manganese hausmannite. Against all expectation (and Goodenough’s) he was able to insert layers of lithium into the hausmannite, thereby producing lithium-manganese oxide crystals that opened the way to low-cost battery development.

Until then, expensive lithium-cobalt had been used, but the lithium-manganese crystals were one-hundredth of the cost. This breakthrough would eventually to lead Thackeray and Goodenough’s joint US patent.

Thackeray returned to the CSIR at the end of 1982, establishing a new battery team to build on his lithium battery research, while also providing R&D support to other divisions within the CSIR who were engaged in other avenues of battery development.

Over the next decade Thackeray and his CSIR team continued to innovate the design of new lithium battery electrode materials, structures and compositions, first focusing, on his return from Oxford, on the family of lithium spinels containing manganese, vanadium or iron.

In 1994, he and members of his team were able to demonstrate that safe 2.5V lithium-ion cells could be manufactured by coupling a lithium titanate spinel anode operating at 1.5V, above the potential of metallic lithium, in a manner that devices fitted with high power batteries such as those now found in hybrid electric vehicles required. Thackeray’s team eventually managed to engineer and patent new lithium-insertion materials and adopted strategies to engineer and patent new lithium insertion materials, including manganese oxide electrodes with one-, two- and even three-dimensional pathways for lithium-ion transport. At this time, Anhydrous-layered aMnO2 structures were unknown.

In 1994, Thackery was told that the CSIR was soon to be terminating its lithium-ion battery research division. Thackery certainly had no plans to leave South Africa, but purely by chance he had met Don Vissers, Head of the Battery Division at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, at an Electromechanical Society Meeting in 1992.

Vissers, well aware of Thackeray’s reputation, had offered him a senior position at Argonne developing a new lithium-polymer battery. Thackery, having few other options for a man of his calibre, contacted Vissers and enquired if the offer still stood. On being told that it did, Thackeray accepted, and he and his family left in January 1994, and Thackeray soon became the lead lithium battery scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

Thackeray, as at the CSIR and Oxford, wasted no time in making his presence felt. Within just two months of his arrival, while working on a high energy, all solid state, lithium-polymer battery project for electric vehicles, he had identified a lithia-stabilized vanadium oxide cathode material (based on his earlier research at CSIR) that provided 30% more energy and superior power relative to the original. Thackeray’s team also invented the lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide cell that underpins present-day battery technology.

Working in collaboration with other Argonne researchers and building on his earlier research at Oxford and CSIR, Thackeray made a pivotal discovery — a lithium-rich nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide (known as ​“NMC”) cathode that provided a noticeable improvement in performance, reliability and safety over the then-current lithium-ion technology. The other Argonne inventors were Christopher Johnson and Khalil Amine, both Argonne Distinguished Fellows in the CSE division. This NMC cathode was a major breakthrough because it furthered the use of lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles and other applications.

There is no doubt that Michael Thackeray was fortunate to work closely with many highly talented individuals and teams, at various institutions and at various times in his career, but at a personal level, he was also able to make some of the most profound breakthroughs in lithium-Ion battery technology, that allowed quantum leaps in the technology that powers so many devices today.

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.

For the full details of this amazing story, I can recommend Running with Lithium — Empowering the Earth: A Personal Journey by Michael Thackeray.

A South African who believes that South Africa’s contribution to the world is under-rated, and intends to make sure the world is aware of this before he dies!