The End of an Era: Remembering John Goodenough, Father of Lithium-Ion Batteries
John Goodenough's passing marks the end of an era, but his legacy of innovation, epitomised by the lithium-ion battery, will continue to power our future.
We mourn the loss of a true titan of technology, John Goodenough, who breathed his last at the age of 100. The news of his passing was shared by the University of Texas, where he dedicated 37 years of his remarkable career as a distinguished member of the faculty. The cause of his passing was not disclosed.
Born in Jena, Germany, in 1922, Goodenough pursued his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Chicago. He commenced his professional journey at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his pioneering research was instrumental in the development of random-access memory for digital computers. He became a part of the University of Texas faculty in 1986, where he made significant contributions in the fields of battery materials and solid-state science and engineering.
During his tenure at the University of Oxford in England, where he headed the inorganic chemistry laboratory, Goodenough made his groundbreaking discovery of lithium-ion batteries in the 1980s. His work built upon M Stanley Whittingham's research from the 1970s, which capitalised on lithium's property – the lightest metal – to donate its electrons, creating a battery capable of generating slightly over two volts. By 1980, Goodenough managed to double the capacity of this battery to four volts by incorporating cobalt oxide in the cathode, one of the two electrodes at the ends of a battery.
Despite this remarkable achievement, the battery was not fit for general commercial use due to its explosive nature. It was only in the 1990s, with Japan’s Akira Yoshino's initiative to replace pure lithium with safer lithium ions in the battery, that a lightweight, secure, durable, and rechargeable commercial battery was introduced to the market in 1991.
The advent of the lithium-ion battery was a transformative moment. It paved the way for wireless electronics such as mobile phones and laptops, enabled a world free from fossil fuels by powering electric cars, and facilitated the storage of energy from renewable sources. Goodenough, Whittingham, and Yoshino each had distinct breakthroughs that underpinned the development of a commercially viable rechargeable battery, and their joint efforts were recognised with the $900,000 Nobel prize.
Goodenough's research triggered a revolution in technology, the effects of which are evident in the ubiquity of portable phones, tablets, and an array of devices with a plug-in port for recharge. When he received the shared Nobel prize in 2019, he became the oldest laureate in history. "Live to 97 and you can do anything," Goodenough said in his acceptance speech.
In his later years, Goodenough and his team at the university were venturing into new territories of energy storage, including a “glass” battery with a solid-state electrolyte and lithium or sodium metal electrodes.
Beyond his professional achievements, Goodenough led a rich personal life. He and his wife, Irene, enjoyed a marital journey of 70 years until her passing in 2016.
While John Goodenough's name might not be familiar to most, his significant contributions to science and technology have indelibly shaped the world we inhabit. His demise marks the end of an era, but his enduring legacy will continue to energise our lives for years to come.