Eight years back, the man whose work touches our lives every day, told his biographer, Steve LeVine, “I am only 92; I still have time to go.”

This morning, he went.

If he had lived till July 25, Nobel laureate John Bannister Goodenough would have completed 101 years on the earth, whose inhabitants have much to thank him for.

If it were not for Goodenough’s seminal work, we would not be having the little lithium-ion batteries that power our cellphones, laptops and hundreds of other gizmos or computers that have random-access memory (RAM).

A fit candidate

In the late 1970s, a British-American scientist called Stanley Whittingham had discovered lithium’s capacity to be a liberal donor of electrons than any other material, making the metal a fit candidate for making anodes for batteries. But the invention had a problem — it caught fire frequently. The lithium-ion battery would probably have died then had Goodenough not walked in to save it.

The scientist, who had an unhappy childhood battling dyslexia and being ignored by squabbling (and later divorced) parents, led an active life till his death. It was the tenacity of the man who would just not give up that helped him solve a problem that was troubling Stanley Whittingham’s lithium-ion cell.

Whittingham’s cell had lithium stored within titanium sulphide. Goodenough, who had worked on metal oxides earlier, came up with the clinching idea of adding cobalt oxide to the anode, to create a more powerful cell that did not catch fire.

Also read: Obituary. Goodenough, Nobel laureate who gave the world Li-ion batteries, passes away

The architect

By doing this, Goodenough became the architect of the modern world that we have today, says Prof Preetham Singh of IIT-BHU, who is one of Goodenough’s many Indian students. Ironically, says Singh, Goodenough never used a cellphone or an ATM.

LeVine describes how Goodenough’s 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). A protracted $500-million lawsuit filed by the University of Texas against NTT, ensued.

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.”

Prof Ramasamy Murugan of the Pondicherry University, another of Goodenough’s Indian students, speaks highly of the Nobel Laureate’s defining qualities — kindness, integrity, sense of humour and, above all, a unique laugh.