The story of the lithium-ion battery cannot be told without talking about John Goodenough. He is a scientist, researcher, and tinkerer now working at the University of Texas, where he says he has invented a solid-state battery that charges quickly, works well at low temperatures, and, best of all, doesn’t explode or burst into flames at inopportune moments as happened with the Samsung Note 7 recently.
Goodenough and his colleague Maria Helena Braga believe they have found the answer. Instead of the usual liquid-filled lithium-ion batteries, they use solid glass electrolytes — chemical structures that allow an electric current to pass between a positive to a negative electrode rather than ones suspended in a liquid.
The Eureka Moment For Batteries?
The result is a battery with much greater energy density that can be recharged in minutes instead of hours and performs well at low temperatures. Best of all, it won’t ignite or explode the way a conventional lithium-ion battery can. If the results in Goodenough’s lab at the University of Texas can be translated to commercial production, the world will be one giant step closer to a zero-emissions future.
“Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries,” says the 94 year old Goodenough.
Who Is John Goodenough?
Who is this John Goodenough fellow? Many people credit him with being the father of the lithium-ion battery, but, thanks to much skullduggery by former colleagues and some of the world’s largest corporations, he has remained almost unknown except to a small coterie of scientists.
Goodenough has been involved in some of the most important advances in electronics. In 1952, he was part of the the MIT Lincoln Labs team that created the magnetic core memory which enabled computers to become much smaller and faster than their predecessors. (See the movie The Imitation Game for more on how incredibly bulky and slow early computers were.)
In its most basic form, every battery is comprised of a cathode, an anode, and an electrolyte — the substance that allows electrical ions to travel back and forth between them. The conventional car battery uses lead for the anode and cathode and a weak acid as the electrolyte. It has always been reliable and durable — and very heavy. Early electric cars, like Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s first automobile, were powered by lead-acid batteries and had a range of about 40 miles at 40 miles an hour.
The Accidental Battery Scientist
Goodenough was not involved with battery technology originally. Then, in 1966, Ford Motor Company unveiled a new battery that used a sulfur cathode and a sodium anode. Early press releases claimed the battery could power a car for 200 miles, then be recharged for an hour and be ready to go another 200. America was seized by a frenzy over the supposed return of the electric automobile. Smog had entered our vocabulary and some were beginning to whisper that the oil might actually run out someday.
The Ford sulfur-sodium battery had just one drawback — it had to be heated to 570°F in order for it to work. Sodium melts at 200ºF and will burst into flames if it comes into contact with air above that temperature. The Ford breakthrough remained a curiosity for the laboratory until OPEC nations turned off the flow of oil in 1973. Suddenly, every scientist in the world was deep into battery research.
John Goodenough was at MIT at that time. Over the next two decades, he would either be solely responsible for or be part of almost every major advance in modern batteries. In 1976, he transferred to the faculty of Oxford University in England. That was the year Exxon announced it had obtained a patent on a lithium battery based on the pioneering work of Stan Whittingham.
The Whittingham Battery
The Whittingham lithium battery was smaller and lighter than anything ever seen up to that time. It was the catalyst needed to make transistor-based electronics portable. But like Ford’s sulfur-sodium battery, it had a problem. If overcharged, it had a tendency to explode. Goodenough thought he could solve that problem and eventually came up with the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode, which is the basis of every lithium-ion battery today.
This was a breakthrough even bigger than Ford’s sodium-sulfur configuration. It allowed for the first lithium-ion battery with the capacity to power both compact and relatively large devices — a quality that would make it far superior to anything on the market. It made a battery with up to 3 times more energy density than any other rechargeable room temperature battery. That’s what allowed it to be much smaller and deliver better performance.
Done In By A Colleague
Unfortunately, Goodenough was working with a graduate student at the time who was employed by Japanese giant Nippon Telephone & Telegraph. Shortly after Goodenough’s invention was completed, the student left for home, taking all the details of the discovery with him. In 1991, Sony Corporation suddenly announced it had acquired an international patent on a lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode. Years of litigation ensued, but in the end, Sony got to keep its patent and Goodenough received nothing for his efforts.
Goodenough shouldn’t have been surprised. More than 100 years earlier, no less a personage than Thomas Edison found that people involved in battery development were largely a bunch of charlatans, leading him to declare:
“The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies. The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very selfsame thing. … Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying.”
A Refusal To Give Up
John Goodenough goes to his office at the University of Texas every day, still driven to discover the next great breakthrough in battery technology. If he fails, he says, “I’m sorry. We’re going to have wars on wars fighting over the last reserves of this, that or the other and we’re going to have global warming beyond anything we can bear.”
The good news is that Goodenough has one last idea. “I want to solve the problem before I throw my chips in,” he says. Goodenough is dismissive of Elon Musk and his incremental approach to battery improvements. He says Musk is content to “sell his cars to rich people in Hollywood” while waiting for scientists to create a battery that will power a middle-class electric car. Goodenough scoffs at such 7% or 8% a year improvements in efficiency. “You need something that will give you a little bit of a step,” he says, “not an increment.”
The problem of the super-battery is truly hard. Goodenough himself says that everyone else should keep trying to make the leap, too. He figures the field has three decades to succeed and commercialize the breakthrough before truly grave problems arise with the environment and resource shortages. That, he thinks, ought to be time enough. “There are a lot of people working, and none of them is stupid,” he says. “I don’t say I’m the only one who can solve the problem.”
Outside The Box
But among his colleagues, many believe John Goodenough is the only person alive who can. “He’s very astute still. His mind is still cranking away,” says Mike Thackeray, a South African physicist who has worked with Goodenough in the past and is now at Argonne National Laboratory. “If there is going to be a breakthrough, it will come from left-field. And John comes from outside the box.”
Now that outside-the-box thinking may have earned John Goodenough the recognition denied him for so long.