Veteran scientist powering the battery revolution for everything from mobile to electric cars
Goodenough says the scientist is doing his best to keep man from destroying the planet
John Goodenough: the electric car is his focus in terms of application of his new battery
I am running late for our interview and show up sweaty, out of breath and completely dependent on a smartphone with 17 per cent battery. SEVENTEEN PER CENT. And the phone is still needed to recollect questions, record the entire conversation and take photos of the 94-year-old engineer/physicist/chemist who is helping reinvent the wheel for the second time in his life.
Thankfully John Goodenough could not care less about my tardiness. Born in Jena, Germany, in 1922, the scientist sits waiting patiently in his modest office with the door wide open. Behind him hangs a large rendering of the Last Supper, the most visible image in an otherwise cluttered academic office.
Goodenough may not enjoy “Nobel-winning” notoriety, but his contribution to science has had universal impact. In 1980 he co-invented the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. He was 52 at the time – around the mean average age for an inventor filing a new patent.
Not that we would be led to believe as much. The tech industry has allowed a false perception – that innovation and youth are joined at the hip – to perpetuate. This is principally on account of a few outliers – Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Instagram, Mike Krieger, or the duo behind Snapchat Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel.
So how has Goodenough stayed so motivated, continuing to seek out potential new solutions to the problem of power storage for so long?
“You’re just wondering what I’m still doing sitting in this chair at 94 aren’t you,” he says, followed by an obstreperous chuckle.
What follows is a story filled with intrigue, deceit, chemistry and physics – all routinely punctuated by his high-pitched laugh. Everything from the Cold War to the pros and cons of using a cane to walk, dealing with the Chinese Mafia and falling into a bog in the west of Ireland are covered in this epic saga.
When the conversation is rooted squarely in science, however, one gets a glimpse of his genius. Goodenough is chemist, physicist and engineer simultaneously, an interdisciplinary advantage which began at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories where he helped develop the first RAM memory for the digital computer.
Tenures at Oxford University in the UK and then UT Austin (where he has remained since 1986) followed.
Goodenough has been involved with a number of battery and power storage-related innovations that should have provided him with the opportunities to capitalise financially. The spoils of his research. however, were rarely shared with those who deserved them. “I’m no good at negotiating,” he says. “Plus universities have only recently gotten wise to the value of IP.”
But, says Goodenough, “no one travels alone”.
“I’ve gotten away with murder and had the privilege of working with people who really knew how to do unique things in the lab. The problem was they didn’t know what to do with their skill set. That’s where I came in. My job was to show what to do, what were the experimental strategies worth pursuing and how to interpret the data.
“My motivation is to free modern society from its dependence on fossil fuels,” he declares sternly. That’s why the electric car is a central focus for Goodenough and his research team in terms of application of his newest offering – a “low-cost all-solid-state battery that is noncombustible and has a long cycle with a high volumetric energy density and fast rates of charge and discharge”.
As lithium-based batteries became increasingly seen as dangerous, expensive and inadequate for the growing power needs of new generations, Goodenough searched for a solution through the development of safer, more solid batteries that were both low cost and lightweight.
Then he stumbled upon the work of Portuguese physicist Maria Helena Braga, who had developed a kind of glass that replaces liquid electrolytes inside batteries. This, it transpired, was the missing part in Goodenough’s thesis.
In a recent paper published by the journal Energy & Environmental Science, he described its significance in reference to existing electric car innovation. “Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted.”
The research team has demonstrated how its new battery cells have more than three times the energy density of modern lithium-ion batteries. In addition, no root-like dendrites form causing it to short-circuit – one of the biggest flaws of traditional lithium batteries.
The materials required are widely available and inexpensive. Any that aren’t, are cheap to synthesize and environmentally friendly.
Has Tesla’s Elon Musk come knocking on his door yet?
“Elon Musk is not a battery manufacturer,” he says. “He buys them because he anticipates someone will eventually come along with the right idea, and he wants to be prepared when that moment comes. He’s basically just a promoter.
“I don’t handle that side of things anyway,” adds Goodenough. “I’ve never been any good at negotiating. I leave that to the office of commercial technology.”
Like many successful people, Goodenough does not enjoy much free time. Until recently any of it he had was spent taking care of his wife who died of Alzheimer’s disease less than two years ago.
“That is one tough disease. It was a long process. Now, though, my students keep me occupied. So by the time I’ve made it home, cleaned up the house, checked the mail and cooked dinner, I’m ready for bed anyway.” Here comes that laugh.
“My wife and I used to travel a lot. I loved the countryside, hiking, animals. I’ve travelled all over the world, including Ireland. In fact, I went for a pee one day on the side of a road only to step off and find myself up to the waist in a bog, much to my wife’s pleasure.”
With the picture of the Last Supper placed so prominently on the wall behind him in his small, cluttered office, one can’t help but ask if his religion has ever come in conflict with his science.
Respect for creation
“Why should they?” he swiftly responds. “I look at it this way: in trying to understand how nature works the scientist shows his respect for creation. The Lord has given us all talents, and it would be a sin to bury them in the ground. We’re supposed to develop them. We’re suppose to ask, seek, knock.”
The scientist, says Goodenough, is simply showing his respect for creation by doing his best to keep man from his own greed and destroying the planet.
“The scientist is trying to do something for society and for his fellow man. In that sense why should there be a conflict? They’re one and the same.
“Problems arise when the scientist becomes arrogant, thinking intellectual knowledge is the only knowledge there is, while the religious man becomes doctrinaire, and believes his is the only truth there is. They’re both stupid. We need dialogue.”