John Goodenough, creator of the lithium-ion battery, dies at 100

27 Jun 2023

John B Goodenough in 2019. Image: US Embassy Sweden (CC BY 2.0)

The oldest winner of the Nobel Prize, Goodenough is credited with an invention that supercharged electronics.

John B Goodenough, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who played a crucial role in the development of the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery, has died at the age of 100.

Until his death, the US materials scientist and physicist was the oldest Nobel laureate alive, having shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino in 2019. At the time of winning the award, Goodenough was 97, the oldest person to receive it.

Born in Germany to parents from the US, Goodenough dedicated his life to the study of physics and related sciences, obtaining a PhD from the University of Chicago before immersing himself in research variously at MIT, University of Oxford and the University of Texas at Austin.

It was during his stint at Oxford in the 1970s and 1980s that he made seminal contributions to the development of the modern lithium-ion rechargeable battery that is used in a vast range of today’s wireless electronic devices as well as electric and hybrid vehicles.

His collaborative work went on to be commercialised through Sony by fellow Nobel laureate Yoshino, a Japanese chemist who also contributed to the battery’s development. This became a game-changer, arriving at a time when the world was in the height of the oil crisis.

Today, everything from smartphones, laptops and tablets to e-bikes and even electric toothbrushes use the revolutionary technology because of its high energy per unit mass relative to other electrical energy storage systems.

Goodenough’s scientific contributions didn’t end with his work at Oxford, however. In 2017, a 94-year-old Goodenough, still a professor at the University of Texas, led a team of engineers to develop the first ever all-solid-state battery cells, which are low-cost and non-combustible.

With a long battery life, a high volumetric energy density and fast rates of charge and discharge, the battery still in development was on a plain far above what lithium-ion alternatives can operate on. Goodenough had outdone himself.

All-solid-state battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as lithium-ion batteries, providing for added range, should electric vehicles use them. The use of an alkali-metal anode increases the energy density of a cathode, with a resultant 1,200 cycles possible with low-cell resistance.

Its development was aided by Maria Helena Braga, who started investigating this field in Portugal several years ago before syncing up with Goodenough and Andrew Murchison in Texas.

“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,” Goodenough said at the time.

Over his lifetime, Goodenough has also won the National Medal of Science, the Copley Medal, the Fermi Award, the Draper Prize and the Japan Prize. He even has an award in materials science named after him. He died at an assisted living facility in Austin, Texas on Sunday (25 June).

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John B Goodenough in 2019. Image: US Embassy Sweden (CC BY 2.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic