John Bannister Goodenough: A Brief History of the Inventor of the Lithium Cobalt Oxide CathodeMarch 22, 2017 by Chantelle Dubois
If being one of the inventors of the most widely used battery cathodes in the world wasn’t already good enough, Dr. John Goodenough was also recently in the news for a new solid state battery that not only surpassed the charge density of the lithium-ion battery, but promised to be much safer, more efficient, cheaper, and longer lasting than the current standard.
If being one of the inventors of the most widely used battery cathodes in the world wasn’t already good enough, Dr. John Goodenough was also recently in the news for his hand in developing a new solid-state battery that not only surpassed the charge density of the lithium-ion battery, but promised to be much safer, more efficient, cheaper, and longer lasting than the current standard.
For many, the idea of being involved in at least one major invention is the stuff of dreams, but even at the age of 94, the solid state-physicist continues to push boundaries and innovate in 2017.
Dr. Goodenough's work on the lithium-ion battery enabled the electronics industry we know today, and there is a good chance his most recent progress will continue to disrupt and change technology in the future. And, in between both, there have been many milestones and breakthroughs.
The life of Goodenough is a fascinating one and certainly deserving of reflection.
Image courtesy of the University of Texas.
While Dr. Goodenough is clearly an incredibly brilliant man, as a child he suffered from dyslexia, which made his studies at Groton School in Massachusetts difficult. Despite this, Goodenough overcame the challenges of the disorder and secured a scholarship to attend Yale, where he obtained a bachelor of science in mathematics, graduating at the top of his class with the distinction of summa cum laude.
Shortly after, Goodenough fought in World War II and then returned the USA to continue his education at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD under the supervision of Clarence Zener, the namesake of the Zener Diode.
Goodenough graduated in 1952 and then moved on to work at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, doing research on computer memory. Magnetic-core RAM would be developed by his team, another revolutionary invention in computer memory and electronics. This work led to the development of the Goodenough–Kanamori rules, which semi-empirically describes superexchange interactions between magnetic and non-magnetic ions.
There’s No Good Tech Story without a Patent Lawsuit
In the 1970s, Dr. Goodenough became head of the inorganic chemistry lab at Oxford University. In 1980, his lab made a breakthrough with the Lithium Cobalt Oxide cathode, which proved to be a viable, efficient, rechargeable alternative cathode in batteries. The cathode was commercialized by Sony in 1991 which enabled the company to produce lighter, more portable consumer electronics. Thus began the emergence of the portable electronics industry.
Unfortunately, Oxford never patented the invention. Despite the eventual commercial success of the cathode, Goodenough would ultimately not profit from the invention. However, the lithium-ion battery changed the future of technology.
Still, Dr. Goodenough continued his work and sought improvements in battery design. After returning to the USA and continuing research at the University of Texas, members of his lab would eventually develop an iron-phosphate cathode in an olivine crystal structure, which was even more efficient in battery recharging.
Unfortunately, it is suspected that a researcher in his lab reported the results to an employer in Japan, which then went on to patent it and develop the technology further. An intellectual-property battle spanning over a decade ensued, with the ultimate outcome being that the University of Texas would receive a $30 million settlement and a share of profits. Once again, Dr. Goodenough made no profit from his lab’s work.
Still Waiting for the Nobel Prize
While Goodenough has been the recipient of many prestigious awards and distinctions, he still has yet to receive a Nobel Prize, despite completely changing an industry.
After all, the transistor may have stagnated without the lithium-ion battery. Electric vehicles would likely not be possible. Electronics as we know it may not have evolved to what we have today. There are some theories as to why Goodenough has not received a Nobel Prize, including that his work falls across too many industries to categorize or that the success of his inventions have largely been commercial.
Whatever the reason may be, he was the co-recipient of the 2009 Enrico Fermi Award, which the US Department of Energy bestows on scientists for lifetime achievement in energy production. He also received the National Medal of Science in 2013, which is awarded by the President of the United States for contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering. These are few among many other recognitions he has earned throughout his life.
Dr. John Bannister Goodenough with President Barack Obama, receiving the National Medal of Science in 2013. Image courtesy of Acalde.
What Solid State Batteries Could Mean
It seems as though Dr. Goodenough is committed to dedicating the entirety of his life to the advancement of battery technology. In December 2016, a paper titled "Alternative strategy for a safe rechargeable battery" was published in the journal of Energy & Environmental Science, which describes a solid state battery that promises significant improvements in rechargeable battery technology. Research fellow Dr. Maria Helena Braga was also involved with the breakthrough.
The batteries use glass electrolytes and an alkali-metal anode. This is different from lithium-ion batteries which use a liquid electrolyte that is more prone to short circuiting. The glass electrolyte also allows the battery to operate in much colder conditions (up to -4°F) than its liquid counterpart.
Furthermore, the glass electrolytes don't rely on lithium and can be replaced with sodium. This is both more environmentally friendly and far more economical.
The new battery has three times the charge density of the current lithium-ion standard, has more charging/discharging cycles, and charges quickly. This has particularly exciting applications in electric vehicles and would enable longer driving ranges and faster recharging. It would also be more usable in a variety of climates, making the technology even more viable.
The Lithium Cobalt Oxide cathode changed portable electronics, and it looks like the solid-state battery may be well on its way to changing the electric vehicle. The life’s work of Dr. Goodenough is an incredible one.
Featured image courtesy of the University of Texas.