A giant of the battery industry

Insights — June 2023

An academic whose contribution to the development of lithium-ion batteries was recognised with a Nobel Prize, died on Sunday at the age of 100

John Goodenough, an academic whose research made a significant contribution to the development of the lithium-ion battery industry, died on Sunday at the age of 100. While not very well known, he was recognised with the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2019, making him the oldest ever recipient.

Born in Germany in 1922 to American parents, he grew up in Connecticut before attending Yale University on a mathematics scholarship. After serving as a meteorologist in the US Air Force during World War II, he earned a graduate scholarship to the University of Chicago where he chose to study physics (even though this hadn’t been an area of focus during his undergraduate course). There he studied under Enrico Fermi, who had been a part of the Manhattan project to develop the atomic bomb. His graduate thesis was on solid-state physics studying the movement of electrons in metals doped with non-metallic elements.

After earning a PhD, he spent 24 years at the US Defence Department-funded Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work in the 1950s and 1960s aided in the development of random access memory (also known as RAM) which remains critical in computer hardware.

When funding ran out in 1976, he was appointed head of inorganic chemistry at the University of Oxford (without obvious experience in the field) where his focus shifted to batteries.

Although his work was never patented, Goodenough’s introduction of cobalt oxide as a cathode in the first lithium battery was a key step in the evolution of the technology. The first lithium battery had been developed by a scientist named Stanley Whittingham in the early 1970s working for the major oil company, Exxon. The subsequent introduction of a graphite anode by Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino led to Sony commercialising the first lithium-ion battery in 1991 and the industry we know today was born. Even today, many lithium-ion batteries still use a cobalt oxide cathode with a graphite anode. Their combined work was recognised when Goodenough, Whittingham and Yoshino were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Goodenough left Oxford in 1986 to teach at the University of Texas where he continued to develop battery materials. This work included pioneering the lithium-iron-phosphate or LFP cathode which was subsequently optimised and commercialised by A123 Systems (a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Wanxiang Group). Today, LFP battery chemistry accounts for roughly 30% of electric vehicle batteries globally.

We reflect with awe on the achievements of this remarkable human. His work has had an extraordinary impact on the battery industry, which is beginning to have an extraordinary impact on our world. We read that in his late years, he was working on solid electrolytes (which are a key ingredient in a number of the anticipated future generations of lithium-ion batteries) and we are optimistic that our planet hasn’t yet fully experienced the full extent of Goodenough’s legacy.