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Podcast: At 97, lithium-ion battery pioneer John Goodenough says his work is not done

The famed scientist tells Stereo Chemistry about childhood adventures, infernal exams with Enrico Fermi, and what keeps him coming to the office after 7 decades

by Mitch Jacoby , Kerri Jansen
September 4, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 35

 

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Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
John Goodenough
Credit: C&EN

Without fail, the name John Goodenough crops up during Nobel Prize season. Many scientists believe he’s deserving of chemistry’s top honor. The University of Texas at Austin materials scientist is credited with developing a material that led to mass commercialization of lithium-ion batteries, the technology that powers our smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles, and other gadgets big and small. Though Goodenough, aged 97, hasn’t yet won a Nobel Prize, he’s not mired down by what could have been. He is renowned for his scientific accomplishments, warm personality, and infectious laugh. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, C&EN reporter Mitch Jacoby joins cohost Kerri Jansen to tell the story of how a former meteorologist with a background in physics came up with a key material that enabled an electronics revolution and how he continues to pursue big questions in electrochemistry today.

Register for C&EN’s Nobel Prize predictions webinar at bit.ly/nobelwebinar19.

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or TuneIn.

The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.

[Laughter]

Mitch Jacoby: That’s the famous laugh of the famous John Goodenough. Well, maybe the laugh is famous only among people who have met John, which I had the good fortune of doing recently. But the man and his contributions to science, especially the science of batteries, are widely known.

John B. Goodenough is a materials scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, who came up with a key material that led to the immensely successful rechargeable lithium-ion battery. That’s the battery found in billions—that’s with a b—billions and billions of smartphones, laptops, tablets, all kinds of portable electronics, power tools, electric vehicles, and other gadgets big and small.

Hi. I’m Mitch Jacoby. As a reporter covering battery research for C&EN, I’ve heard lots about John Goodenough over the years. But I never had the opportunity to sit down with the man until recently, when I traveled to Austin to learn the story about his notable career.

I talked with John all about his life, starting with the experiences of his youth that led him to a lifetime of science. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’ll hear those stories, discuss the technology he developed, and we’ll also hear from some of his colleagues—longtime and current—about what John is like as a scientist and as a man.

John Goodenough has been working on materials like the type found in batteries for 7 decades, and he still goes into his UT office or lab day after day. And that’s where I found him on a sunny morning in May, just a couple of months shy of his 97th birthday. I quickly learned that this seasoned scientist is not only a knowledgeable chemist but is also one of the wittiest and best natured. And I got my first exposure to that famous laugh.

To test the audio levels on my recording equipment, I told John a quick story about a recording debacle I caused, inadvertently, while doing one of my very first interviews for C&E News—back in the 1990s, in the days of cassette tape recorders.

Mitch (in interview): Did the interview. Everything was great. Hung up after 40 minutes, rewound the cassette, hit Play. Silence! There was nothing on there. I didn’t get one word of recording.

John Goodenough: I’m glad you brought an assistant today. I don’t want to have my time wasted. [Laughter]

Mitch (voice-over): Well, she wasn’t my assistant. John was referring to my colleague Kerri Jansen, who accompanied me to UT Austin to record the interview and to keep two battery nerds on task. You know her as the cohost of this very podcast.

Kerri Jansen: Hi, Mitch.

Mitch: Hi, Kerri. Thanks for letting me take over your podcast for this episode.

Kerri: My pleasure. I was surprised to hear you’d never met John in person before.

Mitch: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy because I have been writing about batteries, including Li-ion batteries—and going to battery conferences—for over 20 years. And somehow I just didn’t get around to meeting John Goodenough.

Kerri: All I knew is that a lot of chemists seem to think John’s work for the lithium-ion battery is Nobel Prize caliber. They seem to rally around him during Nobel Prize week in October, hoping he’ll win. I think there’s even a Twitter hashtag #weareallgoodenough.

Mitch: That’s true. The pundits and science news commentators bring up his name regularly. His work really did have a profound impact on the world’s electronic devices. So we wanted to talk to this highly regarded and beloved character.

We’ll get back to his battery technology later in this episode. But first, let’s learn a little about the man himself and the path that led him to battery science.

John grew up in Connecticut, near Yale University, where his father was a religion professor. And he told us that he thoroughly enjoyed nature.

John Goodenough: I liked the outdoors. I remember one day taking my bicycle the 8 miles from school downtown, to my home just outside of New Haven, and thinking, “You know, the people—all my friends who were brought up in the city, they just don’t understand a lot of things that those of us who are exposed to the country understand.”

Mitch (in interview): So your parents’ home was in a rural spot outside of New Haven. And being out there in the country, that appealed to you. You liked being out there?

John Goodenough: Oh, I opened the back door and I went out and there were the fields and the woods. And I made myself butterfly nets and caught butterflies and I trapped woodchucks. I skinned a skunk one day and my mother wouldn’t let me come in for dinner. [Laughter] So, you know, I’ve always liked nature.

Kerri: Mitch, have you ever trapped an animal? The most I’ve done is wrangle my cat into a carrier for the vet.

Mitch (voice-over): As a kid, I skinned my knees a few times, but I never skinned a skunk!

Kerri: So John liked the outdoors. A lot. How did he feel about school?

Mitch: Well, John says he liked school, but he didn’t take to reading very easily.

John Goodenough: I had a hard time to read. But I did teach myself to read and to write eventually.

Mitch: John says he studied diligently in his younger days—he attended an Episcopalian boarding school from the age of 12—and when the time came for college, he embarked on a liberal arts program at nearby Yale.

John Goodenough: What they did there in those days—the first 2 years were a smorgasbord of things to see what you might be interested in in life.

Mitch: John was eager to learn about all kinds of things in college. Paying for it, however, was tricky, to say the least.

John Goodenough: My father gave me $35 and said, “There it is, boy. You can go to university.”

Mitch: In other interviews, John has said that he had a lousy relationship with his parents—and they weren’t very supportive. And $35 doesn’t go very far. It certainly doesn’t cover college tuition. And it didn’t in the 1940s, when John was going to school.

Kerri: How much did it cost to go to Yale back in the day?

Mitch: Looks like tuition at Yale was about $900 per year. That’s according to a Yale website.

Kerri: That’s quite a ways off from $35. So, where’d the rest of the money come from?

Mitch: Well, to make ends meet, John spent a lot of time tutoring young students.

John Goodenough: So I put myself through school. So I said I will never take another penny from home. I never did. I worked 21 hours a week for 21 meals during my undergraduate days. I had a scholarship for my tuition. And I worked. My old headmaster had arranged for me to have jobs tutoring sons in wealthy homes in the summer. That enabled me to get enough money, not only so that I could feed myself and take care of myself during the summer, but that I would have enough money left over to pay for my room. So I had my room taken care of, I had my meals taken care of, except for during the holidays.

Mitch: But thanks to some of his friends from school—or their caring mothers, John managed not to go hungry during holidays.

John Goodenough: The mothers of my friends were happy that their sons had me as a friend and so they were good to me. So I managed. I managed.

Mitch: After taking advantage of all the learning from the liberal arts program, John narrowed down to a focus on mathematics, a subject chosen by process of elimination.

John Goodenough: I didn’t like to read. I couldn’t read very well. I’m still not a very good reader. So I wasn’t going to do history and I wasn’t going to go into law school. I was keeping open the possibility of going to medical school.

Mitch: So John focused on his math classes, with medical school possibly an option on the horizon. But this was the 1940s.

Kerri: Right, and in the ’40s war was already raging in Europe, and long-term planning was difficult.

Mitch: And events in the Pacific would soon draw the US into the war, threatening the aspirations of a generation of college students.

John Goodenough: In the middle of my—or autumn of my sophomore year, Pearl Harbor came. And when I went to volunteer for service, my math professor called me in to his office and said, “John, don’t volunteer for the marines like all your friends. They need people who know some mathematics to do meteorology.” And I thought, “Well, that’s not a bad idea.” So I volunteered for meteorology.

Mitch: Military services have always wanted to be able to predict the weather accurately—and not just so they can advise people whether or not they should take an umbrella to work tomorrow. But rather for planning and logistics purposes. Like figuring out when it’s the best time to move troops and trucks and when ships should sail and airplanes should take off. And doing meteorology for the army, rather than going into the marines, would have the additional benefit of keeping John off the front lines.

So only partway through his college education, John was preparing to put his studies on hold. But he didn’t enter the armed services right away.

John Goodenough: Well, then they delayed a year before they called me up. And that gave me the opportunity to just—in 2½ years—finish all but one course for my undergraduate degree at Yale.

Kerri: So close! I’d have been crushed if I got that close to my degree and couldn’t finish.

Mitch: Me too. But fortunately, everything ended up working out for John.

John Goodenough: They were gracious enough to give me credit for the one missing course on my meteorological training in the army. So I managed to finish my undergraduate degree.

Mitch: In 1944, John graduated with honors and a degree in mathematics from Yale University. Then he served as a meteorologist during World War II, stationed in the Azores archipelago off the coast of Portugal. He says that during his undergrad years at Yale he felt a calling—that was the word he used—to pursue physics after the war, if ever he got the chance to do so. Eventually, he did get the chance.

John’s former math professor at Yale had connections to recommend that John, along with some other returning army veterans, be supported to go to graduate school, a great stroke of luck that John has described in other interviews as “a miracle.”

His options weren’t unlimited, though. John said he was offered the opportunity to go to Chicago and study physics or math, either at Northwestern University or at the University of Chicago. He chose physics at the U of C. John recalls that the welcoming committee there didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet.

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John Goodenough: The registration officer said to me, “Don’t you know that anybody who had done anything interesting in physics had done it by the time he was your age? And you want to begin?” That was a nice introduction.

Mitch: John was 24 years old at the time. And things didn’t get any easier after that welcome. In the 1940s at the University of Chicago, the physics bar was set quite high.

John Goodenough: And Fermi was in charge of the situation.

Mitch: That’s the world-famous Enrico Fermi, the Italian-born master of theoretical and experimental physics. Fermi was the scientist who oversaw the first human-controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, which his team carried out at a secret location—a below-ground squash court at U of C. The way John tells the story, Fermi wanted to make sure that grad students in physics really knew their stuff. So . . .

John Goodenough: He set up a 32-hour exam for a qualifying exam. Eight hours a day for 4 days.

Kerri: Ouch! It pains me just to hear that.

Mitch: Yeah, when I went to grad school, I had to write a paper outlining my thesis plans and then take an oral exam that lasted maybe 2 hours, not 32!

And John says that students had to learn much of the material for the grueling exam through independent study. It wasn’t all taught in formal courses. So he studied . . . and studied.

John Goodenough: And I had to take that horrible exam twice!

Mitch: That’s right—John didn’t pass the first time. But he passed the second time and was cleared to begin working on a PhD. Now the question was what to work on—and with whom? Again, John chose his subject by process of elimination.

John Goodenough: I knew I didn’t want to do nuclear physics. The alternative was solid state. So I went to Clarence Zener, who was a professor of solid state at the University of Chicago at that time.

Mitch: Clarence Zener was a physicist, materials scientist, metallurgist, and all-around expert in the properties of solids. Some of his discoveries were eventually put to use in commercial electronics. John was fascinated by these subjects. So as a young grad student, he approached Zener.

John Goodenough: And I said, “Can I be your student?” He said, “Well, come back Thursday and I’ll let you know.” When I got back he said, “That’s fine, John. I decided you can be my student. Now, you have two problems. Your first problem is to find a problem, and the second problem is to solve it. Good day!”

Kerri: Not the warmest welcome. Mitch, what would you do if that was your reception in a new program?

Mitch: Honestly, I’d probably think, “Oh shoot. What have I gotten myself into? Maybe I’m not really cut out for grad school.”

So John’s introduction into Zener’s lab wasn’t overly friendly, perhaps—but John sees it as a good push to think independently. And with that, John Goodenough stepped into the field of solid-state materials science, where he would spend just about all of his career. Working with Zener, he studied the relationship between the structure and electronic properties of alloys. In John’s final year of grad school, Zener was recruited to head an R&D group at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, and he arranged for John to complete his PhD work there as a paid researcher. Finally earning a salary, and enjoying the small measure of financial independence that came with it, John married his U of C sweetheart, Irene. He graduated shortly thereafter, in 1952, and moved into his first long-term work position, at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The Lincoln Lab is a US Department of Defense research center in Massachusetts that studies and develops technology for national security applications.

John Goodenough: And that was a wonderful experience for me because they had an air force contract to develop a scheme to protect the United States against incoming aircraft. They had the radars, and they had the communications, but they didn’t have the digital computer.

Mitch: A robust “digital computer,” as it was called then, was the missing piece of the puzzle. The very first commercial computers were being developed at that time. They were large machines—“the size of a ballroom,” as John puts it—with a large number of vacuum tubes and sometimes magnetic drums for memory storage. The available technology didn’t have the memory capabilities that the air force needed, in part due to a lack of appropriate electronic materials.

So began 24 years of research at the Lincoln Lab, where John mainly focused on magnetism. During that period, he studied transition-metal oxides—often semiconductor materials based on metals from the middle part of the periodic table. And he developed various magnetic materials for early computer memory devices.

But eventually, the air force cut back on its support of the projects that John was most interested in. So he decided to move on to the University of Oxford in England.

John Goodenough: For some reason, the people at Oxford had the imagination to invite a nonacademic with a physics background to become head of the inorganic chemistry laboratory there.

And my wife quite wisely said, “I think, John, you’ll go to Oxford.”

Mitch: With his characteristic laugh, John, who has long been an avid Bible student, brings up the Old Testament passage in which God tells Abraham to do exactly as he’s instructed by his wife, Sarah.

John Goodenough: You’re supposed to listen to every word that Sarah says, right? So I decided that was a good thing to do.

Mitch: It was a big opportunity for John.

John Goodenough: It was transformational for me because now I was officially an academic and I was officially a chemist.

Mitch: An electrochemist, to be specific.

Kerri: So this is where John’s foray into battery research begins, right?

Mitch: Exactly. John had studied properties of materials connected to energy storage in the past at Lincoln Lab, but he wasn’t actively working on batteries. The next years would become the defining period of his scientific career.

Kerri: So Mitch, we’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll dive into the materials and the methods that would push lithium-ion batteries into the mainstream.

Lauren Wolf: Hi there! I’m Lauren Wolf, the science desk editor at C&EN. I’m one of those pundits mentioned earlier in the episode who has year after year mentioned John Goodenough as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I don’t think anyone can deny that he belongs on the list of possible winners. Or that his laugh is contagious. But will he get the call from Sweden? Well, we’ll all know next month, on Oct. 9, when the ChemNobel, as we affectionately call it, is announced. Until then, we can only speculate. And speculate, we shall. Join us on Thursday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. Eastern, as C&EN teams up with ACS Webinars to bring you our annual Nobel Prize predictions webinar. I’ll be there along with a panel of special guests to discuss our picks for this year’s prize, to chat about chemistry breakthroughs deserving of the prize, and to test your wits with Nobel trivia. If you join the webinar, you won’t only get to listen to us know-it-alls make our predictions and inevitably get it wrong. You’ll also get to weigh in by casting your own virtual votes during the webinar. You can register for free on the ACS Webinars website; we’ll post a link in this episode’s description. We hope you’ll join us for the fun.

Mitch: So we’ve met John Goodenough, the lithium-ion battery pioneer. We’ve learned about his upbringing and his love of nature, his educational path through math and physics, and his decades of research on the electronic and magnetic properties of solids. At this point in his career, at age 54, he has just left MIT’s Lincoln Lab and is headed for Oxford, where he began to immerse himself in battery research.

Just to let you know what’s coming, that excursion would take John back to the conduction of ions through solids. He had studied that topic earlier in search of a solid electrolyte. Now he was diving back in—in search of an electrode material to use for making powerful rechargeable batteries. That work would eventually lead to today’s multibillion-dollar lithium-ion battery industry.

Kerri: So John’s headed off for Oxford. What is the landscape of batteries at this time?

Mitch: Well, by this point in the story, rechargeable batteries are old technology. The lead-acid batteries that are used to start gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, some version of them has been around since the 1800s. They’re very dependable, and they were back then, but they’re kind of big and heavy.

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For a long time, battery research wasn’t really a thing because nobody urgently needed new and better ones. But that thinking changed when the Arab oil embargo of 1973 made the West realize how dependent it was on foreign energy sources.

So the year is 1976, and John is at Oxford. And now it’s time to bring another scientist into the story, one who would also play an essential role in the world of battery technology.

M. Stanley Whittingham, Stan to his friends, is a British-born chemist and materials scientist at Binghamton University. He’s known John Goodenough for nearly 50 years, since the days that both scientists were studying the way ions move through solids.

M. Stanley Whittingham: He’s a great guy to work with, have a discussion with. As everyone will tell you, his laugh, you can recognize it from a mile away. I knew about him when I was on the staff of Stanford University. He was at Lincoln Lab. And we were working on the solid electrolyte, β alumina.

Kerri: Wait a minute. Solid electrolytes? I thought electrolytes were liquids.

Mitch: Well, nearly all batteries today—especially the ones that are manufactured in very large numbers—do use liquid electrolytes. And that’s because for a battery to work well, ions must be able to move quickly from one electrode, through the electrolyte, to the other electrode. In rechargeable batteries, they have to be able to make the round trip easily. And ions usually move through solids much more sluggishly than they do through liquids. But a few solids stand out as good ion conductors, meaning the ions could move more quickly through them. Those were the materials John’s and Stan’s groups were interested in.

Kerri: But why would they want to replace liquid electrolytes if those worked fine?

Mitch: Well, the liquids do a great job of transporting ions, but they tend to be corrosive or flammable. If those liquids were replaced by solids, they’d be safer.

Researchers have been working on solid electrolytes for batteries for a long time. They still are. Spoiler alert: Stan and John did not end up developing a solid electrolyte for lithium-ion batteries back in the ’70s. But they did understand the limitation of liquid electrolytes, which propelled their work.

But even though solid electrolytes still haven’t made it into the mainstream, John would learn things from his work with solids that he would eventually apply to developing an electrode material for the liquid-electrolyte batteries that are in all of our devices today.

The whole thing comes down to figuring out if and where and how ions dance around in solids. And those basics apply just as much to solid electrodes as they do solid electrolytes.

Kerri: OK, and so back in the ’70s, John and Stan knew each other, knew of each other’s work, because both of them had worked on solid electrolytes.

Mitch: Yeah. And around the time that John went to Oxford, Stan, who was then working at Exxon, the oil and gas company, figured out how to make a battery electrode from titanium disulfide, TiS2. That’s a layered material made up of lots of sheets. And it “lets”—I’m putting finger quotes around lets—it “lets” lithium ions insert themselves in between the sheets. That’s called intercalation.

Kerri: So being able to insert lithium ions between sheets of a layered material, intercalate it, that’s how these batteries work. That’s the way those lithium ions flow through the battery. Stan’s group had an electrode that could intercalate—where did they go from there?

Mitch: Here it comes. By pairing the TiS2 cathode with an anode made from metallic lithium, and by sandwiching an organic liquid electrolyte that conducts lithium ions really well between the two electrodes, Stan’s group came up with the first rechargeable lithium battery. Here’s how it worked: lithium ions would flow from the anode through the liquid to the TiS2 cathode, where they would insert into the sheets and then flow back out again to charge and discharge the battery. It was a big deal, because lithium is a lightweight metal, so the battery was light, and unlike some other batteries that worked well but only at high temperatures, Stan’s battery worked at room temperature. Exxon patented it.

Kerri: But wait. If Stan Whittingham’s group made the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery, what was left for John Goodenough to do?

Mitch: Well, the Exxon battery had some problems. Under some charging conditions, as lithium ions return to the lithium anode, the metal can accumulate in the form of wispy, needlelike structures known as dendrites. If they grow long enough, they can reach from one electrode to the other and short-circuit the battery. If that happens, the battery can overheat quickly, build up pressure, and possibly explode. That can be especially dangerous because metallic lithium is highly reactive in air, and the organic electrolyte solution is flammable.

Kerri: Yikes. So, some room for improvement.

Mitch: Yeah, no question about it.

At that time, at Oxford, John was studying the magnetic properties of metal oxides. And he noticed that the structure of cobalt oxides was similar to the structure of the TiS2 that Stan’s group was using in their battery cathodes. Now, Stan had demonstrated that you could use this solid—this TiS2—as an intercalation electrode. So because of the similarity between the lattice structures of the titanium and the cobalt materials, John reasoned that his cobalt material might also work as an intercalation electrode. That hunch was a big deal.

If it worked—and that was a big if—the battery would operate at higher voltage than the Exxon battery, resulting in a more powerful energy storage device. Here comes another spoiler: it did work.

Kerri: So John found this material, this lithium cobalt oxide, that would tolerate lithium being pulled out of it and pushed back in.

Mitch: Yeah, over and over again, without falling apart—that’s key. And he figured out how much of the lithium you could pull out without destroying the material. Soon, John’s group figured out how to use this material—this lithium cobalt oxide—as a battery cathode, which solved one half of the battery conundrum.

Around the same time, Samar Basu at Bell Labs in the US and Akira Yoshino at Asahi Kasei Corp. in Japan showed that lithium ions could also intercalate into graphite, which is also a layered material. So within a few years of coming to Oxford, the Goodenough group demonstrated a high-powered lithium-ion battery featuring lithium cobalt oxide as the battery’s cathode and graphite as its anode. The new battery ran at about 4 V, compared with Stan’s 2.4 V battery. And it was safer because it had no metallic lithium in it.

Kerri: That’s the battery in my cell phone.

Mitch: With some modifications and improvements, yes.

Sony recognized that the battery John’s group demonstrated was a big deal. They commercialized the battery in 1991, paving the way to enormous growth in portable electronics and making lithium-ion batteries incredibly successful and ubiquitous. Today they are everywhere across the globe. Here’s Stan again:

M. Stanley Whittingham: So that invention, John really made then, made a cathode that made a commercial, successful product. When John came up with lithium cobalt oxide, Sony picked up the idea and ran with it, got some technology from Bell Labs to make the other electrode. And as they say, that was history.

Kerri: So that’s why John’s work was so important. It’s what made lithium-ion batteries practical for widespread use.

Mitch: Right. The cathode he came up with, and the idea to pair it with a graphite anode, wasn’t just an important advance in electrochemistry. It was the enabling technological advance that catapulted lithium-ion batteries from a good idea to a commercial success.

The history of the lithium-ion battery since that time has taken quite a few twists and turns. The short version of the events is that the field has seen the commercialization of a few other cathode materials, some of which came from John’s lab after he moved from Oxford to the University of Texas in 1992.

One notable piece of that story is that John never made any money from lithium-ion batteries. Oxford did not patent the battery technology; the university simply was not active in patenting and licensing intellectual property at that time. So, in a bid to get the technology to market one way or another, John ended up signing over the royalty rights to the UK’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment, also known as AERE Harwell, a government lab near Oxford.

John keeps his usual good cheer about him as he recounts those events and the way he has been asked about them so many times. He says there’s one question in particular he is often asked.

John Goodenough: “Did you anticipate when you did this, what it was going to result in?” I said, “Of course not.”

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Mitch: No one did. Back then, no one imagined just how big lithium-ion batteries would become and how valuable those patents would be.

John Goodenough: I didn’t know they were going to be worth billions.

Mitch: That’s right. Billions with a B. The numbers out there vary, but industry analysis firms predict that the value of the global lithium-ion battery market will grow within the next 5 years from today’s value, roughly $35 billion, to something approaching $100 billion.

At least at this point, John seems pretty resolved to accept things as they are and didn’t seem angry about it. He still keeps his chin up, still laughs his infectious laugh, and still connects to people through his warm personality.

Mitch (in interview): What’s he like as a person?

Maria Helena Braga: As a person, he’s fantastic.

Mitch: That’s Maria Helena Braga, a professor in the Engineering Physics Department at the University of Porto in Portugal. Helena has been collaborating with John since 2015—spending a lot of time in Austin—to understand the properties of a glassy solid electrolyte that Helena’s group discovered.

Kerri: Solid electrolytes? They’re back in fashion?

Mitch: They never were out of fashion. Stan and John just didn’t get them to work way back when. But people are still trying to make that happen. People like Helena. Her solid electrolyte is composed of lithium, oxygen, and chlorine and doped with a little barium. John likes to refer to it as Braga glass. There’s also a version with sodium instead of lithium. The glass is a great ion conductor, and John and Helena have been pushing to understand its properties in order to use it as a safe alternative to flammable liquid electrolytes in lithium- or sodium-based batteries. John is still looking for that perfect solid electrolyte.

Helena says that in the early days she and John would have animated discussions in his office about the conductivity mechanism and other phenomena, and she would jump up out of her seat, enthusiastically sketching schematics and diagrams on a whiteboard.

Maria Helena Braga: I would go to the board and try to explain my views, and he was of course sitting down in his desk. And it was like I was dancing at the board, and sometimes he would say, “Just take it easy. Sit down, young lady.” Because I would get so excited that he would have to tell me, “Sit down.” And then he will say, “I am a slow thinker. Let me think about what you are saying.” And so we would have, like, kind of these dances.

Mitch (voice-over): They don’t dance quite as much these days, but they do spend a lot of time discussing the properties of that new glassy electrolyte.

Maria Helena Braga: He likes very much to be into everything. He likes to discuss all the results. And he has a very intuitive capacity of seeing the experiment in his mind.

Mitch: Helena says John seems to have an innate sense about whether something seems reasonable or does not. The way she sees it, 70-plus years of thinking about atoms and electrons in solids—especially magnetic materials—has given John Goodenough the ability to picture what’s going on at the atomic level.

As for John, he says he’s not going anywhere.

Mitch (in interview): Do you feel like you’re going to do this next month? Next year? The year after? As long as you can keep making it to the lab, is this what you want to do?

John Goodenough: I don’t want to retire to wait to die. I would like to be engaged. I believe that what we’re working on is something which is very important.

Kerri: So, Mitch, it sounds like John still has his eye on creating an even better battery. Did he tell you anything about what he hopes to be around to see?

Mitch (voice-over): I know that he’s working on some of the big problems that everybody in battery science is working on. One of those things, for example, is figuring out how to use sodium in place of lithium. Sodium is basically available in limitless supply. Lithium isn’t. So that would be a cost-cutting measure. Another big challenge is making batteries that are even more powerful—and it seems like one of the things John has in mind is going back to using a metallic lithium anode, a pure lithium anode.

Kerri: But I thought metallic lithium was really dangerous.

Mitch: Lithium is dangerous—or it could be dangerous when it’s exposed to air and moisture and especially when things get hot. But the thing is, though, if you have pure lithium instead of a lithium compound, then that means you have more lithium atoms in every gram of material that goes into the battery, and that can provide more energy and more power. The big challenge there is keeping things safe, and that might be where the solid electrolyte that he’s been working on with Helena—the thing that he calls the Braga glass—that’s where that may come into play. If you protect the lithium with the right packaging and use that solid electrolyte instead of the flammable liquid one, the battery should be really safe.

So he’s got a whole bunch of challenges that he’s working on right now. But even without this potential new superbattery, John’s contributions to battery science have already had a huge impact on energy storage and consumer electronics.

Kerri: And that’s why so many chemists think he should win a Nobel. Or should have won a Nobel.

Mitch: Yeah. A lot of people have been saying for years that he should win a Nobel Prize. But who knows how the Nobel committee makes its decisions? It’s kind of complicated, and usually things are categorized by individual academic disciplines, and John has been a little bit hard to categorize. In fact, Stan Whittingham made a comment about that.

M. Stanley Whittingham: Recognition has come a bit hard for him because the physicists don’t really think he’s a physicist and the chemists don’t really think he’s a chemist. So he was really into interdisciplinary science before it was a fad.

Mitch: But fads weren’t really John’s thing, anyway. His thing was working hard, figuring out what goes on inside solids, and trying to advance technology, which he continues to do to this day. In fact, John’s seemingly boundless energy at this point in his career makes other seasoned scientists—like 77-year-old Stan Whittingham—still feel young.

M. Stanley Whittingham: I tell my colleagues I’m still a midcareer scientist, so long as John is still around.

Mitch: When we left John, he was in his office, about to eat lunch, with two postdocs waiting to discuss their latest results with him. And he seems really content with that. Whether John wins a Nobel Prize or not, and even without those billions that he never made from the lithium-ion battery, he says he feels fortunate. He’s thankful to have had so many good opportunities in his career.

Kerri: Right—like the professor who suggested meteorology over the marines, the one who got him a scholarship for grad school, his wife insisting Oxford was the right choice.

Mitch: Yeah. Here’s John again:

John Goodenough: You know, life is a matter of choices. And some choices are made for us, but we always have to make the choices we can that are presented to us. I may not have had any money, but I had people making very nice choices for me all along, so I’ve had a very privileged life. Of course you have to do something with the opportunities you have or you don’t get the choices the next time. But I worked very hard. I tried to do the best I could.

Kerri: Be sure to tune back in for our next episode in about a month when we’re going to turn over our mics to little science reporters with big questions.

Science reporter: Like, what do you do about DNA?

Scientist: What do I do about DNA?

Science reporter: Yeah.

Kerri: Riveting stuff! You can subscribe to Stereo Chemistry on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify.

Stereo Chemistry is a production of C&EN, the newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society. This episode was written by Mitch Jacoby and produced by me, Kerri Jansen. It was edited by Matt Davenport, Lauren Wolf, and Amanda Yarnell. Sabrina Ashwell is our copyeditor. The music in this episode is . . . Mitch, I’m going to need some help with this.

Mitch: It’s called “Shir Hama’alos” and the band is Even Sh’siyah. And here’s a little secret: that’s my band.

Kerri: Our promo music was “Plain Loafer” by Kevin MacLeod. .

Mitch: Thanks for listening.

Fin.

Music:

“Shir Hama’alos” is by Even Sh’siyah, provided courtesy of Mitch Jacoby.

“Plain Loafer” is by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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Comments
University of Pennsylvania Science Student (September 5, 2019 10:15 PM)
Great story and great story telling! I hope John G. wins a Nobel Prize.
K. D. Sen (September 5, 2019 10:33 PM)
I was fortunate to have a three days interaction with Professor Goodenough when he visited IIT-Kanpur, Department of Chemistry, in 1978-79. This was a winter school in solid state chemistry which Professor C.N.R. Rao was directing. I was a graduate student interested in theoretical chemistry. Professor Goodenough used simple phenomenological model to explain the intricate magnetism of transition metal oxides. The most delightful and memorable part was the regular after dinner walks with him & Mrs Goodenough on IIT-K campus. During these hours, he was responding to every thing we went on asking.
Walking tall, walking straight, we loved the pace, we loved the grace. His Chemistry Nobel is long overdue.

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