John Goodenough, a pioneering researcher who helped transform lithium-ion batteries, died at the age of 100 on Sunday.
His inventions that helped develop modern computers and commercialize lithium-ion batteries touched every person’s life on the planet. Yet few knew him and his work didn’t bring him riches, though it did earn him a Nobel Prize very late in life. None of that bothered Goodenough, as he kept developing better batteries almost until the end of his life. His decades of work and innovation are now a cornerstone in the race to decarbonize the world’s vehicles and energy system.
Goodenough was born in Germany in 1922 to American parents, and his life can be summed up as finding himself in unfamiliar places but managing to excel all the same. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut near Yale University, where his father taught history of religion. In his 2008 autobiography Witness to Grace, he recounts a childhood made up of distant parents and “deep hurt.”
After he left for private boarding school at the age of 12, he studied Latin and Greek, learned to cope with reading disabilities and won a scholarship to Yale to study mathematics. Then came World War II, and, at the suggestion of his math tutor, he signed up to be a meteorologist rather than go to the front lines. Goodenough served in the US Air Force for nearly three years, first in Newfoundland and then in the North Atlantic archipelago of the Azores.
On his return, he found out that his Yale tutor had recommended him for a graduate scholarship at the University of Chicago, where he chose to study physics even though he had taken only basic courses on the subject in undergrad. There he studied under prominent physicists, including Enrico Fermi, who had been a part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. His graduate thesis was on solid-state physics studying the movement of electrons in metals doped with non-metallic elements. During his studies, he met and married a history grad student named Irene Wiseman, whom he remained married to until her death in 2016.
After earning a PhD, Goodenough spent 24 years at the US Defense Department-funded Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work in the 1950s and 1960s on compounds made of metals and oxygen helped progress the development of random access memory, or RAM, that serves as the center for a computer’s short-term data access.
When funding dried up in 1976, he briefly considered a position in Iran studying solar power, with a $7 million grant from the shah, according to Seth Fletcher, author of a book about batteries called Bottled Lightning. But then Goodenough secured a job as the head of inorganic chemistry at the University of Oxford — yet another position he wouldn’t have seemed fit for on paper, having never studied chemistry courses in grad school. It’s at Oxford that he turned his attention to batteries, after the oil crisis of 1973 sparked his interest in alternative forms of energy.
All batteries, from the very first one invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, are made up of three components: two electrodes — referred to as an anode and a cathode — with an electrolyte that allows the flow of charged atomic particles called ions between them. Lithium is the lightest metal in the universe, and a battery that can use lithium ions would be able to store the maximum amount of energy in the smallest amount of space.
An Exxon scientist named Stanley Whittingham had developed a battery that used lithium in the early 1970s. However, that very desire to make batteries energy dense caused Whittingham’s battery — which used lithium metal as anode and titanium sulfide as cathode — to catch fire.
With safety in mind, Goodenough turned to compounds that he had studied during his days developing random access memory: oxides. Working with two graduate students, he found that cobalt oxide served as a superior and safer cathode.
However, Oxford never patented Goodenough’s invention and he gave it away to a British nuclear research agency in the hope that it may be commercialized. Later, Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino figured out that using graphite as the anode made for a safer and longer-lasting battery.
That combination of work helped Sony commercialize the first lithium-ion battery in 1991 and it proved an immense hit. Even today, most portable electronics have cobalt-oxide anodes and graphite cathodes. For his pioneering work, Goodenough was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2019 along with Whittingham and Yoshino.
After leaving Oxford in 1986, Goodenough taught at the University of Texas, Austin, and continued to develop better battery materials. In the late 1990s, he developed a new cathode material called lithium iron phosphate (LFP) that was later modified and commercialized by A123 Systems LLC.
First, lithium-ion batteries made electronics more portable. Now, the technology is a key tool in the world’s effort to curb carbon emissions and help shift road transport away from oil.
“I didn’t know they were going to be worth billions,” Goodenough said of lithium-ion batteries in a C&E News interview in 2019, months before becoming the oldest person to win a Nobel.
As the value of battery inventions shot up, it brought fights to Goodenough’s doors, according to Fletcher’s Bottled Lightning. He signed a deal for his LFP invention with a Canadian company, which accused A123 of infringement. A Japanese researcher worked in Goodenough’s lab and filed patents in Japan based on that work without giving him any credit. He gained little to nothing directly from any of that, and he even gave away the little prize money he earned to endow scholarships.
Goodenough was known for his booming laughter, dedication to science and the immense respect of the thousands of students he taught through his life.
The development of lithium-ion batteries was the work of many, but Goodenough played an outsized role. And even though he received most recognition for his work on lithium-ion batteries, it was not his favorite problem to work on. Instead, he told Nature that working on “Mott transition,” which involved the study of metals, electrons and magnetism, brought him the greatest pleasure.
The advice he gave frequently was to never retire too early, and it was one he followed. In recent years, he worked on a glassy solid electrolyte that would make batteries safer by eliminating the flammable liquid electrolyte that still bedevils lithium-ion batteries. The solution to that problem will earn its inventors billions of dollars, not that Goodenough cared.
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