Goodenough: The man who powered the lithium battery revolution

M Ramesh | Updated on: Jul 09, 2022
John Bannister Goodenough

John Bannister Goodenough

Celebrating the centenarian Nobel laureate John Bannister Goodenough and his ongoing quest for cutting-edge technology

Today you can hardly imagine a world without lithium batteries. The man who gave them to the world, Prof John Bannister Goodenough, is celebrating his 100th birthday this month.

The 2019 Nobel laureate is a man of his word. In 2015, he told his biographer Steve LeVine, “I’m only 92, I have a long way to go.”

Contrary to popular belief, however, Goodenough was not the inventor of lithium batteries. Stan Whittingham, the British-American scientist who shared the Nobel with Goodenough, was the first to postulate that lithium, which can liberally donate electrons for a flow of current, can be stored within sheets of titanium sulphide.

However, Whittingham’s cell could never have made it to industry; it caught fire frequently. Goodenough perfected it with a cobalt-based cathode to create a product that today touches nearly everyone’s life.

A ton and at the crease, Goodenough is a rockstar of the scientific world, thanks partly to his great student diaspora. Many of them are gathering in Austin, Texas, later this month to celebrate their guru’s centenary birthday.

Prof Ramasamy Murugan of Pondicherry University was one of Goodenough’s students.

He tells Quantum that his teacher’s contribution went way beyond lithium batteries. “His work in random-access memory for digital computers and the Goodenough-Kanamori rules for magnetic interactions are equally important to science,” Murugan says. Another student, Prof Preetam Singh of IIT-BHU, Varanasi, points to Goodenough’s “immense contribution to superconductivity, especially in crossover conductivity phenomena.” Goodenough was also the inventor of sodium superionic conductor NASICON, says Singh.

Triumph against odds

What makes Goodenough’s achievements particularly noteworthy is the fact that his seminal work came on the back of immense struggles in his personal life, especially during his formative years.

His biographer points out that his childhood was a washout, as his parents squabbled and his mother scarcely took care of him. In school, the young John battled dyslexia, which made it difficult to understand lessons or keep up in the chapel, says LeVine.

“Instead, he occupied himself in explorations of the woods, its animals and plants.” Eventually, he overcame his disability to enter Yale and passed out magna cum laude in mathematics.

Later he served the US army during World War II. On his return to academics, his undergraduate teacher at the University of Chicago told him, rather derisively, that at his age other physicists had already achieved their peak.

LeVine gives a detailed account of how Goodenough developed the cobalt cathode and how the technology was stolen by a Japanese student, Shigeto Okada, whom Goodenough had admitted in his class at the behest of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT). What resulted was a protracted $500-million lawsuit filed by the University of Texas against NTT.

There is a small Indian connection to the episode. Goodenough had put Okada to work alongside an Indian post-doc, Akshaya Padhi. When Goodenough discovered Okada’s tech-theft, he asked Padhi to record details in his notebook to be used as evidence in court, but Padhi is said to have refused, saying, “Sorry, he is my friend.”

Going by LeVine’s account, Goodenough appears to have been continually short-changed by people who profited immensely from his technology, though he seemed unaffected by this. Goodenough has, instead, remained a seeker of knowledge all his life.

Constant search for solutions

Murugan recalls that “even at the ripe age of 90, he used to visit the laboratory and meet each one of the scholars and discuss work, the (technical) problems and possible directions to solve them”. He also says that Goodenough “likes India and Indian scholars and we used to discuss a lot about Indian culture”. Preetam Singh recalls that when he entered Goodenough’s room for the first time, the scientist had asked him, “Where is your turban?” He had explained to tell him that not all Singhs were Sikhs.

Murugan and Singh (as well as LeVine) mention Goodenough’s sense of humour and his “unique laugh”, a recording of which is sometimes embedded into articles about the man.

Singh observes that Goodenough would make people so comfortable that “you can discuss the most stupid idea with him”.

Eight years ago, when he was, in his words, “only 92”, Goodenough had been pained to note that lithium batteries had not yet lived up to their potential. He mentioned that he was working on an idea. Nearly a decade on, things have not improved much.

However, recent research in solid state batteries, which feature a solid electrolyte (lithium garnet), holds promise. But the engineering issues around solid-state batteries will most certainly be solved; when that happens, lithium-ion batteries will see universal adoption. This, experts say, could happen in five years. Time enough for Goodenough to witness this — after all, he is only 100.

Published on July 10, 2022
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