Science & Technology

Bidding adieu to John Goodenough, the untiring inventor who co-created the modern lithium-ion battery

In 2019, Goodenough and two other scientists received the Nobel Prize for their work on lithium-ion batteries

By Mrinal Tripathi
Published: Monday 26 June 2023
Screengrab: National Science Foundation

John Bannister Goodenough, the American scientist who was one of the creators of the modern day lithium-ion battery, passed away June 25, 2023 at the age of 100. He, along with Stanley Wittingham and Akira Yoshino, had received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2019 for their work on lithium-ion batteries. 

John Goodenough, who was a month away from turning 101, was born to American parents in Jena, Germany. After studying mathematics at Yale University, he served during World War II as a meteorologist in the United States Army. 

In 1952, he received a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago. He subsequently worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oxford University. He joined the University of Texas in Austin as a professor in 1986. 

In 1980, Goodenough and his fellow researchers developed a lithium battery with a cathode of cobalt oxide, in which lithium ions could be housed within layers. “This cathode gave a higher voltage than earlier batteries,” according to the official Nobel Prize website. 

This discovery paved the way for the development of lithium-ion batteries, which are now ubiquitous in portable electronic devices and electric vehicles.

The transport sector contributes almost a quarter of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. In many countries it is predominantly based on the combustion of fossil fuels, making it one of the largest sources of both urban and regional air pollution. 

The ongoing transition to electric vehicles is a boon to the fight against climate change. And Li-ion batteries are the preferred variety by automakers. The co-founder of Tesla, Martin Eberhard, for instance, wrote in a blog post in 2006 that the technology is “a whole lot better than Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) cells and lead acid cells found in EVs of yore”.

In 2017, Goodenough led a team of engineers to develop the first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage. 

Collaborating with Cockrell School senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, he developed a low-cost all-solid-state battery that is non-combustible and has a long cycle life with a high volumetric energy density and fast rates of charge and discharge. 

The engineers described their new technology in a paper published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. They demonstrated that the new battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as today’s lithium-ion batteries. 

A battery cell’s energy density gives an electric vehicle its driving range, so a higher energy density means that a car can drive more miles between charges. 

The battery formula, also known as the UT Austin battery formulation, also allows for a greater number of charging and discharging cycles, which equates to longer-lasting batteries, as well as a faster rate of recharge (minutes rather than hours). Clearly, Goodenough wasn’t one to rest on his laurels.

The glass electrolytes developed by the engineers allow them to plate and strip alkali metals on both the cathode and the anode side without dendrites, which simplifies battery cell fabrication. Another advantage is that these battery cells can be made from earth-friendly materials. 

“The glass electrolytes allow for the substitution of low-cost sodium for lithium. Sodium is extracted from seawater that is widely available,” Braga was cited as saying by the UT Austin official website. Sodium-ion batteries are popular with the Indian battery researchers and start-ups because of the low cost and abundance of sodium in India. 

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