John Goodenough Plans to Make Gasoline Obsolete
How a wisecracking 95-year-old chemist plans to reenergize the future.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “All Charged Up.”
The first thing I hear as I step off the elevator on the ninth floor of the University of Texas at Austin’s Engineering Teaching Center is the laugh. Ha-hah-hah-HA-HAAA! It ricochets down the hall from the office of John Goodenough, a man who has done more to change the electronics we use every day than anyone this side of Steve Jobs. His inventions have led to the batteries that power most cell phones and the short-term memory chips that enable computers to seamlessly navigate between emails, photos, and the latest Ariana Grande song. “He’s responsible for two of the most significant discoveries in our lifetime,” says Charles Tate, the chairman of the Houston-based Welch Foundation, which funds chemical research in Texas.
Goodenough, who is 95, is trim, white-haired, and bespectacled. He doesn’t stand when I come in. He’s had two hip replacements—one good, the other not so good, he says, followed by the laugh. Though he’s soft-spoken, the laugh is an incongruous eruption that punctuates even the most serious discussions. Ha-hah-hah-HA-HAAA!
A physicist by training, Goodenough is a rock star among chemists. On October 23 he’ll receive the Welch Award (handed out by the Welch Foundation), a $500,000 grant for groundbreaking research. Such accolades are nothing new. President Obama awarded him the Medal of Science in 2013, and some of the world’s top battery researchers have groused that he should have already won a Nobel Prize.
And yet, he’s a bit of an anomaly in the research world. For one, “I use chemistry to answer physics questions,” he says. Also, he sees a connection between his scientific pursuits and his Christian faith: “If you believe that there’s a creator, you should show respect for that creator by respecting his creation. Scientists show respect for creation by studying our planet and how it works. They serve people with their discoveries.”
And then there’s his age. Albert Einstein once remarked that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.” Goodenough, however, is on the cusp of his greatest breakthrough of all.
In December, he and several colleagues published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Energy & Environmental Science with the humdrum title, “Alternative strategy for a safe rechargeable battery.” The findings were anything but mundane. The article revealed that they are closing in on the holy grail of renewable energy research: developing an inexpensive battery that is safe, efficient, and powerful enough to make electric cars and renewable energy sources like wind and solar accessible to everyone. The paper garnered attention everywhere from Silicon Valley to Houston. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, tweeted that Goodenough “has developed the first all-solid-state battery cells. Promising!”
While Goodenough believes his innovation could one day supplant the fossil fuel industry, he’s not alone in the race for a better battery. On August 3, the noted tech investor Bill Joy unveiled a completely different solid-state battery technology and proclaimed that it was the battery of the future.
Predictions about life-changing technology are often overwrought, but Goodenough’s reputation gives his new discovery heft. “Anytime he speaks, the industry has to listen,” says Jeff Bishop, the managing director of Key Capture Energy, a Houston-based developer of utility-scale battery storage projects. Indeed, Goodenough’s penchant for defying conventional thinking may prove him right once again.
Goodenough grew up near New Haven, Connecticut, and later attended Yale, where his father taught religious history. “I was studying philosophy because I was trying to find my calling and figure out what I was supposed to do with my life,” he says. He suffers from dyslexia, which makes reading difficult, so he gravitated to mathematics and took a few physics courses along the way. He enlisted in the Army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and four years later went to study physics at the University of Chicago. “When I got there,” he says, “the registration officer said, ‘I don’t understand you veterans. Don’t you know that anybody who’s ever done anything interesting in physics has already done it by the time they’re your age?’ I was twenty-three or twenty-four.” Ha-hah-hah-HA-HAAA!
After completing his doctorate, he joined the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1952. The lab received federal funds to design the nation’s first air defense system, and Goodenough was part of a team tasked with developing a memory system for computers that was more dependable than the existing technology, magnetic tape. Their work on ceramic magnetic cores laid the groundwork for random-access memory, or RAM, which remains the way short-term memory is stored on most computers.
Since RAM relied on a magnetic core, Goodenough’s work on the project led to research in chemistry and materials engineering, and in 1976, he accepted a position running the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford University. Four years later, he helped make the breakthrough that led to the lithium-ion battery. Exxon had already patented a lithium battery, but it wasn’t rechargeable. Goodenough was able to create a cathode out of cobalt oxide rather than layered sulfide, which increased the battery’s voltage and enabled it to recharge. His design remains the basis for the lithium-ion batteries used in most portable electronics today.
In 1991, Sony commercialized the technology, launching the wireless revolution. At the time, Goodenough says, he didn’t fully recognize the potential of his discovery, and he received few royalties. “I’m not putting gold in my pocket as a result of my invention,” he says. “What I was interested in was seeing it get out to the public.” To this day, though, he refuses to carry the device made possible by his ingenuity. “I don’t use a cell phone,” he says. Ha-hah-hah-HA-HAAA!
If Goodenough’s latest invention succeeds, children a few decades from now may think of gasoline-powered cars the same way millennials now think of landlines—which is to say, not at all.
Developing better batteries has long been the biggest stumbling block to the widespread adoption of electric cars, which require the ability to store and discharge large amounts of electricity inexpensively. While Goodenough’s lithium-ion batteries made it possible to power small devices, their safety risks are much more pronounced when scaled up. The liquid electrolytes used to carry lithium ions between the anode and cathode (the negative and positive sides of the battery) can form tiny whiskers of metal, called dendrites, that are prone to causing explosions and fires. Also, as anyone who’s still using an iPhone 5 can tell you, the battery’s charge cycles grow shorter over time.
Goodenough, who had moved to the University of Texas at Austin in 1986, when he was 64, made two important advancements in the mid-nineties. Still, a battery’s life cycle remains limited, and to deliver the range that electric car drivers want, they must be linked together. A Tesla, for example, has some seven thousand battery cells, which allow the car to travel as far as 265 miles without recharging. Stringing so many batteries together gets pricey: in a typical electric car, the batteries can account for more than $20,000 of the cost.
To resolve these issues, most researchers focused on building better anodes and cathodes. All of them, though, assumed they needed liquid electrolytes, as all batteries have. Several years ago, Goodenough began to question that prevailing wisdom. “I’ve always believed you have to challenge assumptions,” he says.
In 2015, he heard about the research of Maria Braga, a Portuguese physicist who had developed a type of glass that could be infused with lithium, replacing the need for liquid electrolytes. (Braga has since joined his team at UT, and she was the lead author of the research published in December.) “Most people who criticized us said, ‘Goodenough’s gone mad,’ ” he says. The glass gives the battery greater storage capacity, and it charges in minutes rather than hours. And by eliminating the liquid electrolytes, Goodenough dodged the pesky “explosions and fires” problem.
Since the glass can be made of sodium, the cost of the battery is reduced, and the increased storage capacity means the same amount of energy can be stored in fewer batteries. As a result, these batteries could enable electric cars to go farther, last longer, and cost less than they do today.
These improvements will also allow for much wider adoption of renewable energy. Currently, wind and solar power generate lots of cheap energy at certain times but not at others, and there’s no reliable (or affordable) way to store the excess for use during the off-times. Bringing renewables to the masses requires a battery that can hold that energy and then disperse it when the wind lets up and the sun is obstructed by overcast skies.
Of course, the key to any invention’s success is commercialization. Can production costs be driven low enough to propel a design from lab to market? To date, 89 companies have expressed interest in licensing Goodenough’s and Braga’s discovery, says Les Nichols, with UT’s Office of Technology Commercialization (he declined to name any names; they’ve all signed nondisclosure agreements). Over the next few years, the companies will evaluate commercial applications for the battery design, and Goodenough, who will receive a portion of the licensing revenue this time around, is confident his invention will outperform competing batteries.
Goodenough isn’t shy about the fact that his invention may profoundly disrupt our economy. Despite his three decades in Austin, he has little use for Texas’s biggest industry. “Modern society runs on energy that’s stored in fossil fuels,” he says. “It’s not sustainable.”
The oil industry has heard such predictions before, and our economy remains over the barrel. Goodenough acknowledges that even if his design succeeds, we’ll be using oil for decades. But he believes that sooner or later, most of our electricity will be generated by cleaner sources. “We plunder the earth,” he says, in language whose biblical resonance is hard to miss. “We have to get back to where we use the energy that’s provided to us by the sun. The civilized world knows we’re at a crunch point.”
This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: a Tesla has some 7,000 battery cells, not fuel cells.