The battery pioneer

John B. Goodenough

“To sustain our modern lifestyle on this planet, we need to return to a sustainable energy supply: Which is energy delivered to us by the sun.”

If modern batteries had the same constitution as their pioneer, John B. Goodenough, we’d all be in good shape. At the age of 94, he’s still going strong…

John B. Goodenough

For many years the battery industry had tried and failed to develop a safe rechargeable Lithium battery. It was Goodenough who realized that the problem could be solved by fabricating a discharged cell with an oxide cathode.

As a result his oxide cathodes and underlying fabrication strategy are now used in modern rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for almost all consumer electronics - and perhaps even the device you’re using to read this story now.

Now Goodenough is working on new battery technology that can transform our ability to harness the Sun’s energy and reduce our dependence on oil. In the quest to replace fossil fuels, he explains, “It’s important not to let your ideas get…fossilized.”

Calculations

The idea is simple enough. As a society we have now learned to capture the energy of the sun through windmills and photovoltaic cells that convert it into electric power and enable it to be transported. However, the electric power from these sources needs to be stored somewhere for it to be useful.

Thus, Goodenough is now working on materials for a new rechargeable battery cell that will allow a low-cost, environmentally friendly, rechargeable battery with a long useful life.

Goodenough believes this can happen within the next five years – which would make it almost half a century since he first began work on the renowned rechargeable Lithium battery. So how does it work?

In the office

All batteries contain two electrodes: an anode and a cathode that can store electric power as chemical energy. The chemical reaction between the two electrodes has an ionic component that flows between the electrodes inside the battery and an electronic component that flows outside the battery. When discharged, electrons and ions flow from the anode to the cathode, and on charge the electrons and ions flow back from the cathode to the anode to restore the chemical energy.

Goodenough’s work in fabricating a discharged rather than a charged battery cell enabled removal of the metallic lithium traditionally used in the anode – and the source of its safety concerns due to anode dendrites whiskers forming on charge that can create an internal short-circuit with incendiary results – to be replaced by a carbon or alloy anode that can be charged many times without dendrites.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese SONY Corporation recognized the potential and used Goodenough’s concept and oxide cathode to produce the first commercial Li-ion battery with a carbon anode for the first wireless telephone. The rest, as they say, is history.

Photo oppportunity at conference!

Having made such an indelible mark on the industry, why continue this journey?

“It’s a journey I’ve been on since the first global oil shortage in the early 1970’s” he says. “As a society, we got lucky back then, through the development of new oil fields from the North Sea to Alaska. But it was obvious to me even then that to sustain our modern lifestyle on this planet, we need to return to a sustainable energy supply: Which is energy delivered to us by the sun.”

He concludes: “I just count myself fortunate that here in the United States they allow me to work in my mid-90’s.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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