JOHN B GOODENOUGH once said that he wanted to solve the ‘car problem’. “I’d like to get all the gas [petrol] emissions off the highways of the world. I’m hoping to see it before I die. I’m 96 years old. There’s still time,” he said, while joking about his refusal to retire. The American physicist who died a few days ago at the age of 100 may not have lived to see such a day, but his work brought the world much closer to that reality.
Goodenough co-developed the lithium-ion battery, the rechargeable lightweight power pack that transformed the world. It ushered in an energy revolution, that today powers almost every portable electronic device, from our mobile phones and laptops to medical devices like cardiac defibrillators, and which, through its use in electric and hybrid vehicles, promises to end the reliance on fossil fuels. His work won him the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a prize he shared with Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, two other pioneering scientists who made important contributions in the development of the lithium-ion battery.
For all his later success, Goodenough had struggled through much of his childhood. He was dyslexic, and his parents were aloof and distant. When he had arrived at the University of Chicago with dreams of pursuing a career in physics after having served as an Army meteorologist during World War II, he was already 23 and considered old for such a degree. “I don’t understand you veterans. Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics had already done it by the time he was your age; and you want to begin?” he quoted a professor as telling him to The University of Chicago Magazine. After completing his education, Goodenough worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the 1950s and 1960s, where he was part of a team that helped develop ceramic magnetic memory cores that enabled the first random-access memory (RAM) in computers, before moving to Oxford to teach and manage a chemistry lab, where he began his research on batteries.
Ever since the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, who is credited with inventing the first battery, stacked discs of copper and zinc, and linked them with a cloth soaked in salty water in 1800, scientists have been looking for ways to develop a powerful and rechargeable battery. The first rechargeable battery only came in 1859. Made from lead-acid— these are still used to start gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, but are too bulky and supply low voltage. A breakthrough occurred in the 1970s, when Whittingham, working for Exxon, designed a rechargeable battery using lithium for its negative electrode, and titanium disulfide for its positive electrode. Goodenough, then at the University of Oxford, improved upon it. “His insight, gleaned from experiments with two postdoctoral assistants, was to craft the cathode with layers of lithium and cobalt oxide, which created pockets for the lithium ions. The arrangement also produced a higher voltage and made the battery far less volatile,” a New York Times article explains.
Goodenough achieved this in 1980. But the world at first failed to take notice. Oxford did not patent the design, and Goodenough signed the rights over to UK’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Goodenough in fact made no money for his work on lithium-ion batteries. Not only did he not receive royalties, but patents were freely shared with peers. Any award money received were given for research and scholarships. Meanwhile, other scientists were building on this new technology. Yoshino, for instance, created a commercially viable lithium-ion battery that eliminated pure lithium and used only lithium ions. In 1991, about a decade since Goodenough’s success in the lab, when Sony produced the world’s first safe rechargeable lithium-ion battery, a boom in wireless devices and vehicular applications followed.
Goodenough remained active until the end. When he won the Nobel at the age of 97—making him the oldest winner in history—he was working on what has been called “super batteries” that he hoped might someday store and transport wind, solar and nuclear energy. “I have learned to be open to surprises,” he told The University of Chicago Magazine, to “not have preconceived ideas or close your mind from listening to what might work.”