The man who brought us the lithium-ion battery at the age of 57 has an idea for a new one at 92

Energy Shocks
Energy Shocks

AUSTIN, TEXAS—The chances are you have never heard of—nor, until looking at this page, ever seen—John Bannister Goodenough. But you know his work. In fact, you almost certainly own some.

Consider the last six or seven decades of technological and scientific leaps: the polio vaccine, space rocketry, the Arpanet (predecessor of the internet). Against those, two inventions stand out in terms of social and economic consequence, not to mention pure ubiquity, inventions without which the lives of a majority of the world’s population—crossing lines of age and ethnicity, religion, moral underpinning, medical condition, political affiliation, taste, style, national identity—would be utterly different.

An adapted excerpt from Steve LeVine’s new book “The Powerhouse” (Viking).

The first of these outsized inventions is the transistor, which, created in 1947 at Bell Labs, transformed electronics, a foundation of the global economy and contemporary civilization. The second is the lithium-ion battery. Commercialized by Sony in 1991, lithium-ion took the clunky electronics enabled by the transistor and made them portable.

Unlike the transistor, the lithium-ion battery has not won a Nobel Prize. But many people think it should. The lithium-ion battery gave the transistor reach. Without it, we would not have smartphones, tablets or laptops, including the device you are reading at this very moment. There would be no Apple. No Samsung. No Tesla.

In 1980, Goodenough, a whip-smart physicist then aged 57, invented lithium-ion’s nervous system. His brainchild was the cobalt-oxide cathode, the single most important component of every lithium-ion battery. From Mogadishu to Pago Pago, from Antarctica to Greenland, and all lands in between, Goodenough’s cathode is contained in almost every portable electronic device ever sold. Others have tried to improve on the cobalt-oxide cathode, but all have failed.

 “I want to solve the problem before I throw my chips in. I’m only 92. I still have time to go.”—John Goodenough Today, at 92, Goodenough still goes to his smallish office every day at the University of Texas at Austin. That, he says, is because he’s not finished. Thirty-five years after his blockbuster, the electric car still can’t compete with the internal combustion engine on price. When solar and wind power produce electricity, it must be either used immediately or lost forever—there is no economic stationary battery in which to store the power. Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering: Oil is again cheap but, like all cyclical commodities, its price will go back up. The climate is warming and becoming generally more turbulent.

In short, the world needs a super-battery. That, “or 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,” Goodenough says.

The good news is that Goodenough has one last idea. He’s working on it with yet another crop of post-doctoral assistants. “I want to solve the problem before I throw my chips in,” he says. “I’m only 92. I still have time to go.”

With that, Goodenough hoots, possibly the strangest laugh of any scientist on the planet. Listen to it here.

The battery revolution of the 1960s

A battery is basically a device for making electrically charged atoms—known as ions—travel from one point to another. When electrical charges move, they create an electric current. This current powers anything connected to the battery.

To make a battery, therefore, you need two electrodes, between which the ions will do their traveling. In the middle, you need a substance for them to travel through, called an electrolyte. One electrode is negatively charged, and is called the anode. The other, positively charged, is the cathode. When the battery is discharging—i.e., when it’s connected to a device that draws power from it—positively charged ions shuttle from the anode to the cathode, creating a current. If it’s a rechargeable battery, plugging the device into a socket—thus pumping electricity back into it—forces the ions to shuttle back to the anode, where they are stored until wanted again.

Almost everything in battery design comes down to the materials of which the anode, cathode, and electrolyte are made. They determine how many ions the battery can store and how fast it can pump them out.

In the early twentieth century, electric cars powered by lead-acid batteries (lead for the electrodes, sulfuric acid for the electrolyte) seemed superior to rivals featuring gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Lead-acid was not a new invention—it was created in 1859 by Gaston Planté. But electrics were quiet and easy to maneuver compared with the noisy and dirty combustion engines, with their aggravating hand cranks. Then, a series of inventions, including the electric starter, gave combustion the advantage. For decades, few seemed to think that things should be different.

Ford’s sodium-sulfur battery, from a 1966 patent filing.

But in 1966, Ford Motor—which with the Model T and the assembly line had done more than any company to make combustion mainstream—tried to bring back the electric car. It announced a battery with a sulfur cathode and a sodium anode. It was a new way of thinking—a light battery that could store 15 times more energy than lead-acid in the same space.

There were disadvantages, of course. The Ford battery operated at about 300°C (570°F), compared with the combustion engine’s roughly 90°C. Sodium melts at 98°C and can ignite when it meets the air. You don’t really want to drive around with a hot, explosive, molten metal under your hood. Realistically, the battery was practical only for stationary storage, for electric power stations.

Yet at first, both Ford and the public disregarded prudence. With its promise of clean electric cars, Ford captured the imagination of a 1960s population suddenly conscious of the smog engulfing its cities. In the initial stages, electric Fords using lead-acid batteries could travel 40 miles (64 km) at a top speed of 40 miles an hour. As the new sulfur-sodium batteries came into use, cars would travel 200 miles at highway speeds, Ford claimed. You would recharge for an hour, and then drive another 200 miles.

Such talk created an excitement resembling the commercially inventive 19th century all over again. Around the world, researchers sought to emulate and, if they could, best Ford. Goodenough, then a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that everything suddenly changed. Batteries were no longer boring. The frenzy continued into the next decade, gaining momentum, Goodenough said, by a combination of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, a general belief that the world was running out of petroleum, and rousing scientific advances on both sides of the Atlantic.

Whatever it was, electrics seemed to be back. Now Goodenough dived into the fray. Over a two-decade period, he would either himself produce, or be part of the invention of, almost every major advance in modern batteries.

Goodenough’s difficult upbringing

John Goodenough grew up in a sprawling home near New Haven, Connecticut, where his father, Erwin, was a scholar on the history of religion at Yale. His parents’ relationship “was a disaster,” he said—friction that extended into aloofness toward their children. Goodenough and his mother, Helen, especially “never bonded”—she had not wanted John, who would be her second child, but her husband had insisted, and she was forever distant from him.

When John was 12, he was sent on scholarship at Groton, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, and rarely heard from his parents again. John’s mother wrote just once as he grew to adulthood. In a slender, self-published autobiography, Goodenough cites many influences: siblings, a dog named Mack, a family maid, long-ago neighbors. But he conspicuously ignores his parents and never mentions them by name. Theirs was a solely biological place in his life.

Goodenough’s boyhood did not suggest the warm, amusing, and self-assured adult to come. Suffering from dyslexia at a time when it was poorly understood and went untreated, Goodenough could not read at Groton, understand his lessons, or keep up in the chapel. Instead, he occupied himself in explorations of the woods, its animals and plants. Nonetheless, somehow everything finally came together. He won a place and an aid package at Yale, and went on to graduate summa cum laude in mathematics.

 “Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics has already done it by the time he was your age?” After World War II, Goodenough, by then a 24-year-old Army captain posted in the Azores Archipelago off the coast of Portugal, received a telex ordering him to Washington, DC. Educators had stumbled on unspent budget money and advocated using it to send 21 returning Army officers through graduate studies in physics and math. Goodenough had taken almost no science as an undergrad but, for reasons obscured by time, a Yale math professor had added his name to the group.

So he found himself at the University of Chicago, studying under some of the leading physicists of the era, including and Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi. As Goodenough registered for preliminary undergraduate classes, necessary to catch up with the others, a professor remarked, “I don’t understand you veterans. Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics has already done it by the time he was your age?”

But it turned out that Goodenough had an intuition for physics. After obtaining his doctorate in 1952, he went to work at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, which the US Air Force had funded the year before to create the country’s first air defense system, known as SAGE. He joined a team that was working on a system of computer memory.

At the time, computers comprised enough vacuum tubes to fill “the space of a large dance hall,” in Goodenough’s words, and had infernally slow memories. Not long after Goodenough joined MIT, the team unveiled magnetic-core memory, a much faster, more reliable, and more compact form of storage. In addition to helping enable SAGE, it became the foundation of computer memory systems until semiconductors superseded it in the 1970s. For Goodenough, more advances followed, including the “Goodenough-Kanamori rules,” which describe how magnetism works in various materials at the atomic scale—another building block of future computers.

John Goodenough (front row, second from left) with his colleagues at Oxford in 1982, two years after creating the cobalt-oxide cathode. (Courtesy of John Goodenough)

By the mid-1970s, Goodenough was fixated on finding a scientific answer to the OPEC-led energy crisis, which seemed to be the largest problem facing the country. But politics intruded: US senator Mike Mansfield pushed through a law requiring that any research financed by the Air Force—which funded the MIT lab—have an Air Force application. Under that law, energy was the responsibility not of the Air Force but of the national labs.

A friend sent word of an opportunity across the Atlantic. Oxford University required a professor to teach and manage its inorganic chemistry lab. In 1976, Goodenough was surprised to be selected; he was not a chemist and had completed just two college-level chemistry courses. He was lucky a second time to be chosen for a position for which he was underqualified, on paper.

Goodenough was a tough professor. Clare Grey, a student of his at Oxford, recalled a physics course that started with 165 students. After a stern Goodenough lecture, she was one of just eight to return for the second class. He was equally exacting in the lab. But that was because, after MIT, he was on the hunt for big advances in solid-state chemistry, a field known for creating the kinds of materials that go commercial.

The first lithium battery

At about the time Goodenough went to Oxford, a British chemist named Stan Whittingham had announced a big breakthrough in batteries. Along with colleagues at Stanford University, he discovered a way to make an electrode from a layered material—one that could store lithium ions within sheets of titanium sulfide. The lithium ions could be shuttled from one electrode to the other, creating a rechargeable battery. And it would work at room temperature. Borrowing a term from chemistry, Wittingham called this kind of storage intercalation, and it stuck.

The news attracted wide attention. Exxon, the oil giant, was at the time seeking to challenge Bell Labs (where the transistor had been invented) as a center of invention. It brought on Whittingham, who began to make a battery, relying on the findings at Stanford. His work went on in great secrecy. Finally, in 1976, Exxon emerged with a patent application for a lithium-based battery.

For six decades, non-rechargeable zinc-carbon had been the standard battery chemistry for consumer electronics. (It had eclipsed lead-acid, which was fine for car batteries but too bulky and heavy for small devices.) Nickel-cadmium was also in use. Whittingham’s brainchild was a leap ahead of both. Powerful and lightweight, it could power much smaller portable consumer electronics (think the iPod versus the Walkman)—if it worked.

But basic physics got in the way. The same electrochemical reactions that enabled lithium batteries also made them want to explode. When over-charged, a cell could ignite, and before you knew it the battery was spitting out flames. But you seemed no better off if you played it safe and used other elements; you’d find that they slowly fell apart on repeated charge and discharge. These vexing issues—exploding laboratories and disintegrating batteries—plagued Whittingham’s work.

Goodenough thought he could create a more powerful battery than Whittingham’s, one without the unacceptable downsides. In the Exxon man’s battery, the cathode material that stored the lithium was titanium sulfide. But in his MIT days, Goodenough had become intimate with another family of compounds—metal oxides, a combination of oxygen and a variety of metal elements. In his judgment, oxides could allow for charge and discharge at a higher voltage than Whittingham’s creation, which according to the laws of physics would result in more energy. And it would be far less volatile. So that is what he would try.

There was also a possible pitfall. The more lithium could be stored in the electrodes and then shuttled between them, the more energy the battery would produce—but if lithium comprised a large part of the material in the cathode, and all of it left on a journey to the anode, then, Goodenough reasoned, the cathode would be hollowed out and might fall in on itself. So could any of the metal oxides manage to hold up under this abuse? And if so, which one, and what was the magic proportion of lithium that could be pulled out?

Goodenough directed two postdoctoral assistants to methodically work their way through structures containing a group of oxides. He asked them to find out at what voltage lithium could be extracted from the oxides—he expected it to be much higher than the 2.2 volts Whittingham was using—and how much lithium could be pulled out of the atomic structure.

Their answer was that about half of the lithium could be pulled from the cathode at 4 volts before it crumpled. That was plenty for a powerful, rechargeable battery. Of the oxides they tested, the postdocs found that cobalt was the best and most stable for the purpose.

Completed in 1980, four years after Goodenough arrived at Oxford, the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode was a breakthrough even bigger than Ford’s sodium-sulfur configuration. It was the first lithium-ion cathode with the capacity, when installed in a battery, to power both compact and relatively large devices, a quality that would make it far superior to anything on the market. It would result in a battery with twice to three times the energy of any other rechargeable room-temperature battery, and thus could be made much smaller and deliver the same or better performance.

In 1991, Sony combined Goodenough’s cathode and a carbon anode into the world’s first commercial rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The result was an overnight blockbuster. In addition to battery sales, Sony solved a problem with one of its leading electronic products—hand-held video cameras. The previously available batteries were simply too bulky for hand-held video use, but lithium-ion allowed Sony to offer a new, sleek version of the cameras, and they, too, became huge sellers.

 “The storage battery is… a catchpenny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies.”—Thomas Edison Rivals quickly came out with copycat batteries and hand-held cameras, then put the lithium-ion batteries into laptops and cell phones, creating several multibillion-dollar‑a‑year industries of small electronics. Zinc-carbon and nickel-cadmium simply could not match lithium-ion’s energy relative to mass, and the former could not be recharged. The Sony breakthrough triggered a frenzy in labs around the world to find even better lithium-ion configurations that would pack more energy in a smaller and smaller space.

Yet despite his central role in the first commercial lithium-ion battery, Goodenough earned no royalties. Oxford had declined to patent Goodenough’s cathode—the university seemed to see no advantage in owning intellectual property. In the end, Goodenough signed away the royalty rights to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, a UK government lab just south of Oxford, reasoning that at least his invention might reach the market. He never fathomed the scale of the market to come. No one did.

But Goodenough’s invention not only enabled the age of modern mobile phones and laptops. Since a lithium-ion battery was relatively light for the amount of charge it held, it also re-opened the possibility of building economic electric vehicles.

A technology made for con-artists

Charlatans and hucksters thrive in eras of invention, since no one can truly know what will become the next bonanza. Batteries have been unusually marked by exaggeration and outright fraud: Because people intuitively understand the importance of a better battery and think that therefore the world should have one, they are vulnerable to deception. In 1883, Thomas Edison, misled too many times in the midst of creating his electronic empire, sized up rechargeable batteries as a mere fable. He wrote:

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.

Goodenough himself recalls the story of a Japanese materials scientist by the name of Shigeto Okada. Okada arrived in 1993 at the University of Texas, where Goodenough had moved the previous year from Oxford. He came from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), the Japanese phone giant, which requested permission to embed him on Goodenough’s team at company expense. After the usual stipulations regarding confidentiality, Goodenough agreed. He put Okada to work next to an Indian postdoc named Akshaya Padhi.

In hosting such researchers, Goodenough was part of the peculiar world of materials scientists, who at their best combine the intuition of physics with the meticulousness of chemistry and pragmatism of engineering. It is their role to dream up a new order from the existing parts in front of them. Padhi and Okada began to tinker, searching for a battery with more energy and better safety than what had already been invented.

They thought that a cathode with a crystal structure called spinel might work. In a regular cobalt cathode the atoms are stacked in layers, so the lithium ions stored in it can only travel in and out along these sheets. In a spinel, the way the atoms are arranged allows the ions to travel in three dimensions, so they can find multiple pathways in and out of the electrode, allowing it to charge up and discharge faster. In 1982, Mike Thackeray, a post-doctoral assistant working under Goodenough at Oxford, had created a pioneering manganese spinel cathode that was cheaper and safer than Goodenough’s cobalt-oxide, invented just over a year before. Perhaps Padhi and Okada could produce an even better spinel.

They started by methodically swapping in metals to see if any achieved their teacher’s objective. They tried cobalt, manganese and vanadium, but none was quite right. Ultimately, they winnowed down the list to a final option—a combination of iron and phosphorus. Goodenough was skeptical that they would end up with a spinel, and told Padhi so. Then the old man left for summer vacation.

A graph showing the charging properties of olivine, the crystal structure discovered in Goodenough’s lab.

Goodenough arrived back to news. Padhi said the professor was right—he did not achieve the spinel structure. Instead, he had produced a different, naturally occurring crystal structure called olivine. And he had managed to extract lithium from the olivine, and intercalate it back in. On inspection, Goodenough saw that the result was sensational. For the third time—first with cobalt-oxide, then with manganese spinel, and now iron phosphate—Goodenough’s lab had produced a major lithium-ion cathode with commercial possibilities.

Goodenough didn’t learn until much later that Okada—the Japanese researcher—went on to disclose Padhi’s discovery to his own employer, which proceeded to secretly develop the formulation itself. In November 1995, NTT, using Padhi’s methodology, quietly filed for a patent and began to canvass Japanese electronics makers, gauging their interest in a new, lithium-iron-phosphate battery.

Goodenough caught wind of the subterfuge only the following year. He was incredulous. “Padhi, he was a spy, for goodness sakes,” he nearly shouted at his postdoc. “Wake up and start putting something in your notebook.” He meant that Padhi should commit his work to writing in his lab book; that record would prove crucial should there be an intellectual-property battle.

“Sorry,” Padhi replied to Goodenough. “He is my friend.”

A race of priority was joined. The Japanese and the Americans rushed out competing papers and patent applications. On behalf of Goodenough’s lab, the University of Texas filed a $500 million lawsuit against NTT.

Then the complications worsened. An MIT professor named Yet-Ming Chiang began to fiddle with Goodenough’s idea and filed for his own patents. Asserting that his improvements had created yet another new material, Chiang and some partners launched A123, a Massachusetts-based battery company. His stated aim was to sell a version of the lithium-iron-phosphate battery for use in power tools and eventually motor vehicles. This established another legal front for Goodenough as Chiang’s company sought to persuade a European tribunal to strike down the old man’s patents, which it eventually did in 2008.

The result was a free-for-all, one that reached an apex late in 2008 when Warren Buffett spent $230 million to buy 10% of BYD, a Chinese car company that announced a new lithium-iron-phosphate-powered electric car. No one spoke of the source of BYD’s batteries but, coming after Chiang’s actions, the impression in the industry was that the Goodenough lab’s invention might turn up anywhere.

In 2009, A123 sold shares in an initial public offering. Chiang’s charisma, the MIT name, and the general tenor of the times created an aura of sizzle, and the share price surged by 50% on the first day of trading. Chiang’s company raised $587 million, the biggest IPO of the year and a tremendous payday for him and all involved. Except, again, Goodenough.

In the end, the University of Texas settled with NTT. The payoff to the school was $30 million along with a share of any profit from its Japanese patents. NTT admitted no wrongdoing. Goodenough received nothing from A123.

One might see a certain poetic justice in what has happened since. In 2012—just three years after the IPO—A123 ended up in bankruptcy. BYD has yet to make good on its stated potential. But Goodenough still regarded the outcome of the iron-phosphate dispute as a travesty. The university-hired lawyer was a mere big talker, a naïf out of his depth against cunning shysters. The battery world is full of exaggerators and one needs to stand up to them. “They want money,” he says. “And some are worse than others.”

A last big idea

John Goodenough, PhD, photographed in Austin, Texas on January 8, 2015. Photograph © 2015 Darren Carroll.
Goodenough in his lab at the University of Texas at Austin. (Darren Carroll)

Goodenough’s wife, Irene, has been suffering from Alzheimer’s, and last year he placed her in full-time care in a nursing facility. His brother, Ward, died about the same time at the age of 93.

When you are a great inventor in your 90s, there are lots of accolades. So it is with Goodenough, who almost every year is nominated for a Nobel, often along with Akira Yoshino, the Japanese chemist who thought to combine the American’s cathode with a carbon anode in order to create the first working lithium-ion battery—the Sony blockbuster. In 2013, Goodenough received the National Medal of Science from president Barack Obama, and in 2009 the Enrico Fermi Award. In fact, Goodenough has his own eponymous award—since 2009, the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK has given an annual John B. Goodenough Award for materials chemistry.

But Goodenough seems most passionate about ending his career with a last, big invention. He is trying, of course, to make a super-battery, one that will make electric cars truly competitive with combustion, and also economically store wind and solar power.

But the path he has chosen involves one of the toughest problems in battery science, which is how to make an anode out of pure lithium or sodium metal. If it can be done, the resulting battery would have 60% more energy than current lithium-ion cells. That would instantly catapult electric cars into a new head-to-head race with combustion. Over the years, numerous scientists have tried and failed—it was lithium metal, for instance, that kept setting Stan Whittingham’s lab on fire at Exxon in the 1970s.

Although Goodenough will not spell out his precise new idea, he thinks he is on to something. And, because of his record, the field knows that anyone would be foolhardy to bet against him. “He’s very astute still. His mind is still cranking away,” says Thackeray, the South African who invented manganese spinel under Goodenough, and now is at the US’s Argonne National Laboratory. “If there is going to be a breakthrough, it will come from left-field. And John comes from outside the box.”

The stakes are high, and Goodenough dismisses a lot of the competing approaches he sees—Tesla’s Elon Musk, for instance, who he says 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. That is not precisely fair—Musk is obviously selling his $80,000 to $100,000 cars to an elite niche, but by 2018 he vows to have a roughly $35,000 model for a broader slice of the market. He is getting there through agile engineering that has provided incremental improvements to his battery.

But Goodenough is equally dismissive of such tinkering and its measly 7% or 8% a year in added efficiency. “You need something that will give you a little bit of a step,” he says, “not an increment.”

No one, including him, can say for sure that Goodenough will succeed this time. Only that he hasn’t given up. The problem of the super-battery is truly hard. Goodenough himself says that everyone else should keep trying for 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.”

Yet again, he might be. That’s why a lot of people—those who do know of him—keep an eye peeled on John Bannister Goodenough.

Adapted from The Powerhouse by Steve LeVine, on sale February 5th by Viking. See videos and the website here.

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