At the end of the 19th century, electric vehicles were already running through the streets of London, according to “Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas” by British journalist Steve Poole.

The electric taxis, which were replacing some of the traditional horse-drawn carriages, were nicknamed “Hummingbirds” for their distinctive sounds. They were also popular in Paris and New York.

The low-noise operation made their future appear bright at first, but they were eventually driven out of competition by gasoline cars.

One reason was the discovery of large oil fields that brought down gas prices. Batteries back then were also not designed for long-distance travel.

More than a century has elapsed since then. Today’s electric vehicle boom owes to lithium-ion batteries. Without these batteries that power cellphones, laptops and other devices, modern society itself would be unsustainable.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is being awarded to three individuals for their work on developing lithium-ion batteries: U.S. scientists John B. Goodenough and M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino of Japan.

When Goodenough was proceeding with research in the late 1970s, high-performance, rechargeable batteries were in great demand as a solution to energy problems that were plaguing the world in the wake of oil crises.

Yoshino, a researcher at Asahi Kasei Corp., fleshed out Goodenough’s research and developed viable lithium-ion batteries.

Even Yoshino himself probably never foresaw the extent to which these batteries would find applications, ranging from camcorders to automobiles.

“It was a happy development that proved to be able to meet the needs of the times,” he later noted, according to “Shigoto no Hanashi” (Talking about jobs), a collection of interviews.

Expectations are now rising for storing renewable energy.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has noted, “(The lithium-ion battery) can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.”

Many scientists and engineers are engaged in such work to power the world forward.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 10

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.