John Goodenough, one of the pioneering minds behind the modern lithium-ion battery, passed away on Sunday, 25th June 2023, aged 100. Affectionately known as the “Father of the Lithium Battery“, Goodenough jointly received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 together with Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshiro.
Whittingham worked on developing fossil fuel-free energy technologies in the 1970s, leading him to research superconductors and develop a titanium disulphide cathode for a lithium battery. The resulting battery had a potential voltage of just over 2V, but metallic lithium is reactive, making the battery an explosive risk.
Goodenough recognised the potential of Whittingham’s research, in both voltage and practical terms, and he was able to double the voltage to four volts, creating a path for more powerful batteries in the future, earning him the “Father of the Lithium Battery” moniker. Yoshiro would then use Goodenough’s cathode configuration in 1985 to create a commercially viable lightweight battery capable of charging hundreds of times, more akin to what can be found in mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles today.
A lifetime of research
It’s worth noting that Goodenough’s research extends beyond battery technology, even if that is what made him a star in the engineering world. Starting his academic career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976, he helped develop random-access memory for the computer industry before becoming one of the founders of the modern theory of magnetism, a pivotal moment in the development of telecommunications as we know them.
However, the research that earned him the Nobel Prize began at the University of Oxford, where he headed the Inorganic Chemistry laboratory. It was there in 1980 that he developed a lithium battery with a cathode of cobalt oxide, which provided a higher voltage. He continued his research at the University of Texas when he became the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair of Engineering in 1986.
“Don’t retire too early!” is what he told the Nobel Foundation and many others; it was certainly advice he was keen to follow. Goodenough was still working at the university well into his 90s, where he was lauded as “a brilliant scientist”, “a leader at the cutting edge of scientific research” across decades, and “a beloved and highly regarded teacher”.
Although his work, together with his research teams, would go on to change the lives of billions of people, he was always humble about his achievements. Lithium-ion batteries power most mobile phones, though Goodenough admitted he didn’t have one because he disliked being “bothered”. He added that even though he was “very gratified that I’ve provided something for the people of this world“, he didn’t “think about it too much”.
Goodenough’s li-ion battery research also saw him help develop the lithium iron phosphate (LFP) chemical configuration, one of the market’s safest and most cost-effective battery types since it doesn’t include any nickel or cobalt. At the research lab at UT, Goodenough assigned his engineering student Akshaya Padhi and Goodenough’s post-doctoral fellow Nanjunda Swami the task to investigate “the relative energies of transition-metal redox couples in the NASICON framework M2(XO4)3 that [we] had shown in Lincoln Laboratory supports fast transport of the Na+-ion guest species.” It was here that Padhi found that Lithium can be extracted reversibly from LiFePO4 with a constant 3.45 V open-circuit voltage, and when made as small particles, this cathode is capable of extremely fast charge and discharge rates.
While the Hydro Quebec Corporation licensed the patent granted to the University of Texas, it was the A123 company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that was first to market the LiFePO4/C battery and demonstrate its use in medium-power applications like electric power tools and small electric vehicles.
Goodenough retained interest in developing pollution-reducing technologies, as these represented “urgent challenges confronting the scientific-engineering community today”, even if the initial efforts in the 1970s were “stalled by special interests more concerned with profits than with our national vulnerability and global environment.” Into his later years, Goodenough was still looking at new ways of storing energy, including a battery made of glass.
A legacy that will live on
In his own words, he said that his extraordinary journey was made so by “the many colleagues who have worked with me over the years…they are the ones who have performed the experiments and each of them kept an open dialogue with the aim to teach me as much as I tried to teach them.”
John Goodenough received many awards throughout more than 70 years of research, which led to incredible innovation across several industries and inspired many a business, not least what we do here at Xerotech. Though he will be missed as one of the greatest minds of our time, his legacy will undoubtedly live on for decades to come via the innumerable minds he has energized.