Illustration of the three Nobel prize in chemistry winners.

Element Update: Good Enough

A fifty-year search comes to an end, a periodic table ’round your neck, and lithium is looking as volatile as ever. It’s time for an Element Update!

Featured above: 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureates John Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino. Illustration by Niklas Elmehed. © Nobel Media.

Scientists just can’t stop finding new allotropes of carbon! Back in August, Katharina Kaiser and a team of physicists in Zurich used an atomic force microscope tip to create a ring of 18 carbon atoms, as announced in Science. That’s an impressive display of fine manipulation at the atomic scale! (I can barely keep my hand steady enough to paint the pupils of my miniatures’ eyes.)

This represents the culmination of fifty years of chemical research. Scientists have known this structure should be possible for decades, but attempts to actually build the molecule always failed. Now they have found a way. It’s useful because the cyclocarbon (as it’s called) could be used as a nano-scale semiconductor, perhaps for use in nanomachines. The only problem is it’s a little unstable. Solve one problem, uncover another. That’s science!

Then, last month, the Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino for their contributions to the development of the lithium-ion battery, an invention that has powered our pockets for the last twenty-five years. These three weren’t a team; rather, they all made individual contributions that advanced battery science by leaps and bounds.

For those of you on trivia teams, Goodenough is the oldest Nobel prize recipient — of any variety — at the age of 97.

Alas, in addition to that Goodenough news, we also have some Badenov lithium news.

In that episode we learned about Bolivia’s long history of imperial powers ransacking the land for valuable resources, likening the silver of 16th-century Potosi to the lithium of Salar de Uyuni. In the show notes, I made mention of Evo Morales, the majority-Indigenous country’s first Indigenous president.

On November 4 of this year, the Bolivian government cancelled a project in which a private multinational corporation would have moved in and started mining lithium.

Earlier this week, President Morales was ousted from the country at the behest of the military; in other words, a coup d’etat. Without a quorum and sworn in by no one, opposition leader Jeanine Áñez has stepped in as “interim president.”

There’s not a causal relationship between those two stories — it’s more illustrative of some major tensions within the country’s borders. Bolivian politics are not black-and-white and cannot be summed up in a couple paragraphs on a chemistry blog. But at the center of this Gordian knot lie the world’s richest reserves of lithium, and the events of this week are not signs that Bolivia’s natural resources will remain in the hands of Bolivians.

It is with a wary eye that I’ll be following this story. If anything major happens as pertains to Salar de Uyuni and element number 3, you can expect to see it in a future update.

You may remember from a past blog post Mary Soon Lee’s Elemental Haiku project. I’m pleased to inform you that you can now add that work of art to your bookshelf! It’s a delightful softcover that’s beautifully designed, with brief facts and airy illustrations throughout. I’m happy to have a copy on my bookshelf, and if you’re the kind of person who would be reading this blog post, you’ll probably like it too!

Yvonne Lacy with her periodic table scarf.
Photo courtesy Yvonne Lacy

Finally, listener Yvonne Lacy wrote in to share her magnificent periodic table scarf! “I like to wear my periodic table,” she wrote. “The shape is weird but it is warm.” As a school librarian, she likes to promote learning any fun way she can — I know I would’ve loved this as a young book-borrower! (And lemme tell ya, this puts Tom Baker’s scarf to shame!)

Many thanks to Yvonne Lacy for sending this in. If you have photos, projects, or anecdotes relating to the periodic table that you’d like to see published in a future update, please get in touch with me at As always, I’m grateful to have you as a listener (and reader)!


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