Father of lithium-ion batteries turns 100
Centenarian Goodenough continues work on solid-state upgrade to revolutionary battery technology he helped invent Metal Tech News - July 25, 2022
Last updated 8/2/2022 at 3pm
Ask anyone, "who invented the lightbulb?" and most would be able to answer Thomas Edison. Ask anyone, "who invented the telephone?" and some would be able to answer Alexander Graham Bell. Ask anyone, "who invented the lithium-ion battery powering your smartphone and laptop?" and perhaps scant few would be able to answer John Goodenough.
Along with his colleagues Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, Goodenough was jointly bestowed the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of the rechargeable battery that has revolutionized the way we live, work, and play.
While the advent of lithium-ion batteries made possible the modern world with its smartphones, laptops, drones, household appliances, and electric power tools unencumbered by the need for a cord to reach the nearest outlet, the electric vehicle revolution being powered by this innovative energy storage technology added greatly to its worthiness of a Nobel Prize.
"Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said upon announcing the award.
Now a centenarian, Goodenough continues to pass his knowledge to a new team of scientists building upon his world-changing legacy.
Academia runs in the blood
John Goodenough was born into a family of academia on July 25, 1922.
His father was working on his Ph.D. at the Harvard Divinity School at the time of John's birth and later became a professor in the history of religion at Yale University.
John, along with his late brother Ward Goodenough, both attended boarding school at Groton in Massachusetts. While John would spend his life in schools, so too would Ward, becoming a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist.
From his father's second marriage, John's half-sister Ursula Goodenough became an emeritus professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
It seems academic success was something that was inevitable for this family of more than Goodenough's.
Despite his future accomplishments, the academic life he was born into was something that did not always come easily to Goodenough. Teaching himself to write and earning a scholarship to boarding school, he had nearly completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics at Yale when he was called to active duty in 1943 as an Army meteorologist.
Shortly after World War II, an opportunity arrived in the form of a surprise telegram. Federal funds had become available to send a select group of returning Army officers to do graduate work in the physical sciences. Unbeknownst to Goodenough, a Yale professor had submitted his name.
After the war ended, he felt returning to school was a challenge, especially after swapping from mathematics to physics, and notably under Enrico Fermi – creator of the world's first nuclear reactor – whom Goodenough remembers as "old school."
Despite the intellectual loggerheads he experienced, he completed his graduate studies in physics, earning a master's and then a doctorate in 1952.
But perhaps more significant for him, while there, he would meet and marry his wife of 65 years, Irene Wiseman.
Anything significant has already been done
John remembers, word for word, what one of his professors told him when he arrived on the University of Chicago campus 70 years ago: "I don't understand you veterans," said John A. Simpson, then a new instructor fresh off the Manhattan Project, later a pioneer in the study of cosmic rays. "Don't you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics has already done it by the time he was your age; and you want to begin?"
It seems these words had the opposite intended effect, having decided that if he ever got the chance, he was going to study physics and was going to do something significant.
After receiving his doctorate, Goodenough became a research scientist at the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of his first projects at MIT was helping to develop computer cores for America's SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment) air defense system, which used the first random access memory (RAM), which he is also attributed seminally toward its development.
Goodenough would work at the Lincoln Laboratory for 24 years before joining Oxford University in 1976 as a professor and head of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, and it was here that he would turn his attention to electrochemistry.
The same year, M. Stanley Whittingham developed the first lithium-ion battery with an anode of metallic lithium and a cathode of lithium ions in between layers of titanium disulfide. Goodenough knew the battery would have a higher voltage if the cathode was a metal oxide rather than a metal sulfide.
The low weight and large voltage capacity of his battery, together with the fact that it was designed to work at room temperature, made it a major breakthrough. However, as the battery charged and discharged, some internal surfaces became rough, eventually spawning long narrow fingers of lithium metal that caused internal short-circuits.
Having some experience in various sciences over his 24 years at MIT, Goodenough believed he could improve on Whittingham's design. Thus in 1980, he completed his lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode-the "positive" side of the battery.
Meanwhile, scientists in Japan and Switzerland were developing a model for the anode, or "negative" side of a battery, that worked well with John's oxide cathode.
The resulting lithium-ion battery cell safely output 4 volts, compared to the 2.4 volts from Whittingham's cell. Moreover, the battery, when made to industry standards with internal safety features, ran a very low risk of overheating and exploding.
Showing that lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode of a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, it was possible to achieve a higher density of stored energy with an anode other than metallic lithium.
In 1991, engineers at Sony recognized the potential of the breakthrough and quickly commercialized a battery using Goodenough's cathode – sparking the beginning of the mobile revolution.
Goodenough received the Japan Prize in 2001 for his discoveries of the materials critical to the development of lightweight, high-energy density rechargeable lithium batteries.
It was this discovery that paved the way for the development of modern lithium-ion batteries that are practically ubiquitous in portable electronic devices and the primary driver of the green transition going on today.
A world without batteries
For a moment, think of what our modern world would be like if Goodenough, Whittingham, and Yoshino had not devised a method of storing energy portably, at least to the point where it made electronics more viable.
In the 1980s, 90s and early aughts, while the world was still growing into the modern digital age, many of the electronic systems were analog in function and therefore wired or even mechanical.
While there is controversial evidence that the concept of a battery has been around since Roman times, the modern era of battery technology traces its roots to 1800, when Italian scientist Alessandro Volta used copper, zinc, and salt water to create a device that could reliably turn chemical energy into electrical energy.
The first rechargeable battery was the lead-acid battery, invented in 1859 and by the dawn of the 20th century, was used to power telegraph machines, streetcar systems, and electrical lighting substations. Relatively heavy and with low voltage, the lead-acid battery was cheap and dependable and is still used in most combustion vehicles today.
Despite that, it is a little cumbersome to imagine a cellphone the size of a phonebook that weighs roughly 40 pounds.
Because an electric automobile powered by lead-acid batteries could not compete with gasoline in speed nor driving range, after the invention of the electric self-starter that replaced the hazardous hand crank, gas-powered cars like Ford's Model T emerged as the more practical transportation solution.
This essentially relegated lead-acid batteries to being used as a starter for the gas engine, and all-electric cars all but disappeared from American roads.
The internal combustion engine automobile was transformational, but not without its costs.
By the 1960s, smog had all but engulfed several U.S. cities, and oil shortages in the 1970s sent gas prices skyward – sparking concerns about American dependence on imported fuel. Almost a replay of the current situation regarding oil and the resources necessary to replace carbon dioxide emitting fuels with clean energy.
Even before the oil crisis of 1973, American consumers seemed poised to try battery-powered vehicles once again, with many legacy carmakers such as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and overseas manufacturers all having electric cars in the works.
Today, global governments and automakers alike are pushing toward the rapid transition from the ICE vehicles that made the 20th-century world a smaller place to the battery EVs transporting us into the 21st century.
And Goodenough is not settling on a good-enough lithium-ion battery to power the EV revolution.
"We have to, in the near future, make a transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a dependence on clean energy," he said in an interview after his Nobel Prize award. "So that's what I'm currently trying to do before I die."
Father of lithium-ion batteries
As he is celebrating his 100th birthday today, Goodenough's work on lithium batteries continues.
The now centenarian lithium-ion battery inventor has teamed up with the new generation of scientists and entrepreneurs who very well may consider him "old school" to make the next world-changing battery storage discovery – solid-state lithium-ion batteries.
With the ability to charge faster, store more energy, and be less likely to catch fire than their liquid lithium-ion battery counterparts, solid-state lithium batteries are considered by many in the automotive industry as the Holy Grail of the EV revolution.
Fundamentally, solid-state batteries work like regular lithium-ion batteries, except with a solid electrolyte in place of the liquid. Solidifying the electrolyte increases the thermal stability and energy density of these next-generation batteries. Solid-state batteries, however, have thus far suffered from two drawbacks – they do not last as long and are more expensive to manufacture than traditional lithium-ion batteries.
In 2020, Goodenough and several members of his lab at the University of Texas began collaborating with Energy Exploration Technologies, or EnergyX, an emerging tech company with ties to Silicon Valley, to advance research into this revolutionary energy storage technology.
At the time, a licensing deal between the University of Texas and EnergyX granted the company exclusive rights to a large portfolio of intellectual property surrounding a next-generation class of materials called organic frameworks and mixed matrix membranes – both are the foundation of EnergyX' research.
"It is truly an honor to be working with Dr. Goodenough and his group at UT. He is a legend in our industry, and I am in awe of his accomplishments," said EnergyX CEO Teague Egan.
Working on two fronts, EnergyX has filed for more than 50 patents related to solid-state lithium batteries and its proprietary Lithium Ion Transport and Separation being used to lower the amount of energy, cost, and time needed to extract lithium from brine.
The extracted lithium can be used in solid-state lithium batteries that use the same lithium-ion transport and separation nanotechnology.
While things have gone quiet in the two years since this collaboration, work on solid-state batteries has not gone undone.
"We are working to disrupt the energy storage sector yet again and provide a pathway for the eventual elimination of fossil fuels. Dr. Goodenough's support and wealth of knowledge is vital to achieving that mission," said Nick Grundish, vice president of battery technology at EnergyX.
With the experienced hand of the man who gave electricity legs, the future of EVs charged with clean, renewable energy seems very bright indeed.
As it turns out, not everything had been done before, and at 100 years old, Goodenough is still making a significant difference.