When John Goodenough began working on lithium batteries in the late 1970s, the academic world was searching for a high-energy solution to the challenges of the original oil crisis. But before Goodenough's ideas could begin laying the groundwork for a transportation revolution, the world had found another use for his light, high-energy battery chemistry.
"It was the electrical engineers who wanted the high energy density for their cell phones," recalls Goodenough, a professor of mechanical engineering and material science at the University of Texas-Austin. "They needed a rechargeable battery. And the rechargeable batteries of that time were lead-acid, which was just too heavy."
Goodenough has since established himself as one of the key figures behind the development of three distinct lithium battery chemistries. He is credited with the creation of lithium cobalt oxide, which later served as the backbone for Sony Corp.'s mobile phone batteries in the early 1990s. He spearheaded breakthroughs in manganese spinel lithium batteries, now employed in electrified vehicles such as the Chevy Volt. And his lithium-iron phosphate chemistries have served in products ranging from handheld power tools to plug-in hybrid cars.
"He's an incredibly bright physicist and materials scientist," says Michael Thackeray, a distinguished fellow and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory who has teamed with Goodenough on battery work. "He's been involved in the development of all the major lithium technologies."
To be sure, Goodenough wasn't alone in those development efforts. He worked with Thackeray on manganese spinel while the two were at Oxford University in the 1980s. And he will be honored later this year by the IEEE for groundbreaking battery work done in parallel with Rachid Yazami of Nanyang Technological University and Akira Yoshina of Yoshina Laboratory in Japan.
The impact of Goodenough's work has been so broad that it's almost impossible to measure. His chemistries continue to exert an effect beyond the mobile phone world, with use in handheld consumer products ranging from laptops to tablets.
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John Goodenough's development of chemistries for lightweight lithium-ion batteries earned him the Enrico Fermi Award for lifetime achievement, given by the White House. (Source: University of Texas-Austin)