The Inventor

UT physicist John Goodenough changed our lives with his pioneering battery research—and he isn’t done yet.

OIMG_9782n a Monday morning in March, a thunderstorm is pelting the UT campus with heavy sheets of rain. Bleary-eyed students stumble into the Engineering Teaching Center to wait out the worst of the downpour, shaking off umbrellas and jackets. A drenched professor rushes in juggling an armful of books. By the look of things, a lot of people are going to be late for their 8 a.m. classes.

In a small office on the ninth floor, however, John Goodenough has already been working steadily for an hour. He is a squarely built man with a shock of white hair and prodigious eyebrows, and he’s staring intently through black-rimmed reading glasses at the dozens of papers scattered across his desk. Without looking up, he motions for me to come in. “Just a minute,” he says. “I’m in the middle of something.”

Goodenough, who turns 93 this month, has essentially been in the middle of something for the past 70 years. While he’s made many key contributions to the fields of physics, chemistry, and engineering, the work for which he is best-known—and he isn’t very well-known outside of the academic community—is his invention of the technology inside the now-ubiquitous lithium-ion battery. Roughly the size and shape of a stick of gum, that humble wafer of plastic and metal is the beating heart of your cell phone, your laptop, your digital camera, even your power drill. This UT engineering professor’s insight, in no small sense, is what powers the gadgets we all rely on. “He is a brilliant researcher and an amazing human being,” says Jayathi Murthy, chair of UT’s mechanical engineering department. “His impact is huge.”

At an age when most of his peers have long since departed their laboratories, if not this world, Goodenough is still working full time, publishing his findings, and mentoring young researchers. He wants to make another big energy breakthrough, something on the scale of the lithium-ion battery, which made consumer electronics affordable and accessible.

“I’m trying desperately to get us to the point where we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels,” he says. “We don’t have much time left.”

“I Was Not Clever”

Tadpoles wriggling in puddles, butterflies flitting around the lawn, and salamanders hiding under cool stones in the creek: These were John Goodenough’s favorite things. Growing up in the 1920s on a rural property outside New Haven, Connecticut, he spent his days playing in the nearby woods, meadows, and creeks with his dog, a collie-shepherd mutt named Mack. An inquisitive child, he squirreled away treasures like seashells, feathers, and animal skins in a secret nook inside the family barn, and his first professional aspiration, at age 10, was to be an explorer.

But under this Huck Finn-like veneer, Goodenough’s childhood wasn’t exactly idyllic. Although his father, a history professor at Yale, made a good salary, his parents spent beyond their means and their marriage was miserable—making for a tense home life for Goodenough and his two siblings. His expression still darkens when he’s asked about it. “In those days, people didn’t divorce” is all he’ll say on the subject.

School wasn’t much better, since Goodenough’s undiagnosed dyslexia made reading hard. The term “learning disability” wouldn’t be coined for another 30 years; Goodenough was simply considered a poor student, with all the teasing and punishment that came along with that label. “I knew I was not clever,” he says. “It made me so frustrated.” By age 12, he had channeled that frustration by teaching himself to write in cursive, a requirement for the admission test for the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts. He calls the fact that he managed to pass the test “a wondrous mystery.” The prep school’s strict environment was a perfect fit for an already monastic kid who disdained smoking, drinking, stealing, and rule-breaking. And he didn’t miss hearing his parents fight. “I was happy to get away,” Goodenough says, “and the school was good to me.”

Boarding school was where Goodenough discovered two lifelong pursuits: poetry and religious philosophy. Dyslexia still dogged him, and when an English teacher returned his essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets with the comment “This assignment was too much for you, wasn’t it?” he resolved to do better. “I decided that the only way to understand poems was to try my hand at writing them,” he laughs, “and I still enjoy it on occasion.” Singing hymns in the school choir also awakened a deep, questioning spirituality. A large tapestry of the Last Supper hangs in Goodenough’s office at UT, and he likes to ask visitors what they think of its lighting and tone, just as a museum curator would. It’s rare to hear the words “cobalt-oxide cathode” and “the Holy Spirit” in the same sentence, but Goodenough says that for him work and faith go hand-in-hand. “There are two kinds of knowledge: spiritual knowledge and intellectual knowledge,” he says, “and each has its place.”

Goodenough’s path to an academic career was circuitous. He studied math at Yale, paying his way by ironing other students’ suits and tutoring. He then served in World War II as a meteorologist. He was contemplating law school when a former professor recommended him for a federal program that sent veterans to graduate school in math and physics. With only a few undergraduate science classes, he was woefully underprepared when he enrolled at the University of Chicago. “When I was registering for class, the registration officer said, ‘Don’t you know, anyone who’s done anything important in physics has already done it by your age?’” he recalls with a laugh. As with his doubting English teacher at Groton, Goodenough took the remark as a challenge and flourished in his PhD coursework. He also met a history graduate student named Irene Wiseman. She liked to debate philosophy and religion just as much as he did, and they fell in love over hours-long discussions at the campus International House. They had a small wedding in 1951, and then it was off to Boston for Goodenough’s first job at MIT. There, he would work on some of the earliest forms of computer memory.

In the 1950s, computers were room-sized behemoths made up of about 18,000 small glass vacuum tubes similar to light bulbs. Each tube used electricity to heat a filament inside until it glowed bright red. The heat released electrons into the tube, and by controlling their current, the computer could represent either a zero or a one. But vacuum tubes consumed a massive amount of energy and space and frequently overheated. So Goodenough and his team came up with something much better: magnetic-core memory. Instead of finicky filaments, this system used an array of magnetic rings to store data. Magnetic-core was faster, cheaper, and more dependable, and it laid the groundwork for the random-access memory (RAM) that we all depend on today.

After the magnetic-core memory breakthrough, Goodenough published a set of rules explaining several key aspects of how magnetism works at the atomic level. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Goodenough-Kanamori Rules would become a landmark of solid-state physics and chemistry research. Engineers and designers around the world relied on them as they worked on the next generation of computers. Like much of Goodenough’s work, the rules brought together many science and engineering disciplines in a way that other scholars couldn’t. “His trump card is using chemistry and physics to solve engineering problems,” says UT engineering professor and Goodenough protege Arumugam Manthiram. “When I was a student in India, there was a solid-state chemistry book that we called ‘the Bible,’” Manthiram says. “He wrote it.”

“Always Listen to Your Wife”

In the fall of 1973, 12 Middle Eastern countries cut off the flow of oil to the United States in protest of the nation’s military support of Israel. Lines at gas stations snaked around the block as oil prices climbed from $3 to $12 per barrel. President Nixon went on television to beg people to turn down their thermostats, and a few cities even banned Christmas lights. The crisis ended in March, but it got Americans talking about an energy future that no longer felt secure—and it got Goodenough thinking. Electric, solar, and wind power held promise, but no one had yet figured out the technology to make these alternatives affordable and scalable. Could he be the one to do it?

Just as Goodenough was contemplating these questions, Congress passed a bill requiring that military-funded labs, including Goodenough’s Lincoln Lab at MIT, focus on research with defense applications. Theoretical energy work like Goodenough’s was seen as too abstract to invest in. He started looking for other jobs and found a tempting opening in Tehran. Iran and the U.S. were allies, and Goodenough had long dreamed of bringing his work to the developing world. But something about it just didn’t feel right to Irene. At her urging, Goodenough accepted a post at Oxford University instead. Then the shah was deposed, the U.S. and Iran severed diplomatic ties, and the country plunged into the chaos and violence of the Iranian Revolution. “Always listen to your wife,” Goodenough says. “She has saved me from making many disastrous mistakes.”

Goodenough_working_OxfordSo the Goodenoughs traded Boston’s busy streets for the verdant English countryside. They switched from coffee to tea and learned to dress in academic cap and gown (or formalwear, depending on the occasion) for dinner. Goodenough still pronounces “laboratory” the British way, with a long, luxurious O in the middle. They also asked in vain about the etymology of their unusual last name, which is of Medieval English origin: “The Brits didn’t know anything about it, either. The story in the family is it had something to do with avoiding paying your taxes.”

To the couple, England was a great adventure, as were all the other places they’d get to travel for scientific conferences—Kyoto, Bangkok, Grenoble, Barcelona, New Delhi, and many more. Goodenough is someone who laughs boisterously and smiles often, and when he talks about his travels with Irene, he gets even more animated: “Well, we saw the damn world!” he guffaws, slapping the table.

When they weren’t traveling, Goodenough was in his lab at Oxford, where one of his many projects involved battery research. He had his work cut out for him. Building a better battery is one of the hardest tasks in all of science and engineering, and it’s bedeviled inventors and engineers for decades. In 1976, the year Goodenough moved to Oxford, Exxon commercialized the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery thanks to the work of a chemist named M. Stanley Whittingham. But Whittingham’s battery had a major design flaw: It often exploded. In hopes of coming up with something more stable, Goodenough and his fellow researchers began tinkering with a group of chemical compounds called metal oxides. It took them four years, but in 1980 they finally hit on a winning combination: cobalt oxide. As energy writer Steve Levine details in his book The Powerhouse, it was a eureka moment:

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 … The result was an overnight blockbuster.

Within a decade, Goodenough’s design was in millions of electronic devices. Cell phones, cameras, and computers all became smaller, more affordable, and more widespread because of the cobalt-oxide cathode, and Goodenough was soon known as the father of the lithium-ion battery. Many of his peers say it’s a travesty that he hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for this discovery.

Surely, then, this is Goodenough’s shining achievement, the work he’s most proud of?

“No,” he shakes his head, “it’s what I’m most renowned for because a lot of people made a lot of money off it!” (While companies like Sony raked in billions, Goodenough, who didn’t own any royalty rights, didn’t see a penny.)

He’s more proud, he says, of his contributions to fundamental science and the bridges he’s built between physics, chemistry, and engineering. Those discoveries are less glamorous and less profitable, and they don’t fit into tidy media narratives. “John has done a lot of basic physics, chemistry, and engineering work that you don’t hear as much about,” Manthiram says, “and that work led to the discovery of new magnetic materials for computers, superconductors, and batteries.” In many cases, the significance of these discoveries doesn’t become clear until years later. That’s the way science works—teams of professors and students plugging away, day after day, year after year, publishing papers and refining results, taking a few steps forward and a few steps back.

“Until the End of My Days”

The 2011 National Medal of Science Laureates and 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation Laureates receive their medals from President Obama in the East Room of The White House on February 1, 2013. Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

In the 29 years he’s been at UT, Goodenough has won nearly every major accolade in science and engineering—the Japan Prize, the Enrico Fermi Award, and the Charles Stark Draper Prize, just to name a few of the most prestigious. In 2012, President Obama shook his hand and hung the National Medal of Science around his neck. The hundreds of students he’s mentored have gone on to have flourishing careers of their own. And, of course, his inventions are a part of daily life. But surprisingly, when you ask his colleagues and friends about Goodenough, they don’t dwell on these achievements. Instead, they talk almost exclusively about his personality:

Murthy: “He is a model for commitment and care. He is incredibly kind and nothing gets him down. It’s not often that you find a human being like this.”

Jianshi Zhou, UT research professor: “He is a very, very kind person. One of the best I have met in my life.”

Manthiram: “His achievements are huge, but the thing I admire most is his heart and his kindness. From him I learned to focus on my work, to stay positive each day, and then good things will follow.”

Martha Greenblatt, Rutgers University chemist: “I’ve watched his relationship with his wife over the years, and it is one in a million. The mutual respect and devotion is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Every afternoon at 4:00 sharp, Goodenough drives his Honda Accord from his office to the North Austin nursing home where Irene now lives. She is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and although she can no longer speak, she squeezes his hand while they watch the news. Over 64 years of marriage, they have made a point of eating dinner together every night, and that hasn’t changed, except that now he lifts the spoon to her mouth. He still marks her birthday and their wedding anniversary the way he always has, by bringing her a bouquet of flowers and a handwritten poem. “It’s important for me to go every night so she knows that I love her,” he says. “We didn’t have children, so what we have is each other.”

Goodenough goes to bed early, then wakes up and heads to his office by 7:30 at the latest. He says he never once considered retiring: “I want to be useful until the end of my days.” Now he’s working once again on a smarter, more efficient battery. Since his version of the lithium-ion battery hit the market in the early 1990s, other researchers haven’t been able to improve on it dramatically. As Tesla founder Elon Musk lamented during a recent TED talk, “The issue with existing batteries is that they suck.”

The battery has gotten slightly smaller and lighter each year, but the change hasn’t been fundamental enough to make electric cars a viable option for most drivers. “What we need is not an incremental improvement, but a step improvement,” Goodenough says. “Our society is still completely dependent on fossil fuels, and we’ve got to find an alternative soon.”

It’s a tall order, but if anyone can do it, it’s probably him—not that Goodenough sees it that way. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he shrugs. “And I don’t think about what I get out of something, I think about what I put into it.”

Photos from top:

Goodenough in his office, March 2015. Photo by Anna Donlan.

During his time at Oxford (1970s-’80s). Photo courtesy Melissa Truitt-Green.

Receiving the National Medal of Science from President Obama, 2009. Photo by Ryan K. Morris / National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.


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