Professor John B Goodenough, an illustrious scientist who played a crucial role in lithium-ion battery development, passed away at 100. He passed away on 25 June, just one month shy of his 101st birthday on 25 July. Texas University at Austin, where Goodenough served as an engineering professor, confirmed his passing.

His groundbreaking contributions greased the wheels of portable electronics and clean energy solutions. Professor Goodenough’s achievements earned him the shared 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, solidifying his place in scientific history.

The lithium-ion battery, which powers wireless electronic devices, electric and hybrid vehicles, and various other applications, owes its existence to Professor Goodenough’s pioneering work. In 1980, while at the University of Oxford, he achieved a laboratory breakthrough that laid the foundation for the widespread adoption of this transformative technology.

The battery has become the power source behind omnipresent gadgets such as smartphones, laptops, and medical devices. In addition, plug-in vehicles, including Teslas, have been empowered to traverse long distances, reducing the environmental impact of transportation and offering a potential alternative to gasoline-powered cars and trucks.

The prestigious Nobel Prize acknowledged Professor Goodenough as a principal figure in the development of the lithium-ion battery. At 97, he became the oldest Nobel laureate in history, sharing the $900,000 award with two other scientists: M Stanley Whittingham, a professor at Binghamton University, and Akira Yoshino, an honorary fellow at the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Tokyo.

In keeping with his commitment to advancing science and technology, Professor Goodenough remained detached from commercial interests. He did not receive royalties for his groundbreaking work on the battery. Instead, he donated his awards, including the stipends that accompanied them, to support further research and scholarships, showcasing his selflessness and commitment to the scientific community.

From a challenging upbringing to scientific brilliance

Behind the brilliant scientific mind was a man shaped by an inconvenient upbringing. In his memoir Witness to Grace (2008), Professor Goodenough shares his experiences.

Little Goodenough grew up as the unwanted child of an agnostic Yale University professor of religion, resulting in a distant relationship with his mother. He endured a childhood marked by loneliness and struggled with dyslexia, a condition added to his difficulties. The emotionally distant household, coupled with the dyslexic situation, made his early years marked by loneliness and struggles. At 12, he was sent to a private boarding school, which restricted his interactions with his parents. However, patience, counselling, and relentless self-improvement helped young Goodenough overcome his reading disabilities and pursue a path of intellectual pursuit and scientific excellence.

His thirst for knowledge led him to study Latin, Greek, mathematics, and physics. During World War II, Goodenough studied meteorology in the Army Air Forces, acquiring a broad scientific background. Following the war, he continued his education at the University of Chicago, where he earned his doctorate in 1952. At Chicago, he studied under scientists such as Clarence Zener, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi, further refining his expertise.

Goodenough’s scientific journey took another significant turn when he joined MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the 1950s and ’60s. There, he contributed to groundbreaking work, including the development of Random Access Memory (RAM) in computers and the formulation of plans for the nation’s first air defence system. His involvement in these pioneering projects showcased his multidisciplinary prowess.

In 1976, Goodenough made a pivotal decision and moved to Oxford. There, he assumed teaching responsibilities while managing a chemistry laboratory. It was at Oxford that his groundbreaking research on batteries commenced, ultimately leading to his pivotal breakthrough in 1980.

Intricacies of battery functionality

The functioning of a battery involves the fascinating interplay of charged ions and the electricity movement. When a battery discharges, positively charged ions migrate from the anode to the cathode, creating an electric current that powers various devices. Rechargeable batteries offer the convenience of being able to draw electricity by plugging them into a power source, causing the ions to flow back to the anode, where they are stored until needed again.

The power, quantity, and speed of ion movement within a battery depend on the materials used for the anode, cathode, and electrolyte. These components play a crucial role in determining the overall performance of the batteries and their suitability for specific applications.

The quest for safe, reliable, affordable, and powerful batteries has long been a goal in the modern world. As society increasingly relies on portable electronics and electric vehicles, there is a growing demand for energy storage solutions that can meet the requirements of these technologies.

The roots of battery technology can be traced back to Alessandro Volta, who invented the first true battery in 1800. Volta’s creation involved stacking discs of copper and zinc connected by a cloth soaked in salty water. This simple yet innovative design produced a stable current and marked a significant milestone in the development of batteries.

In the early days of automotive history, car batteries predominantly utilised lead-acid technology, which, while effective for running ignitions and accessories like lights, had limitations in terms of power output. Consumer electronics, on the other hand, relied on zinc-carbon or nickel-cadmium batteries to meet their energy needs.