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The man behind the lithium-ion battery

For many of us, listing off the great scientific names of history is an easy enough task: Einstein, Newton, Graham-Bell, all household names, even in non-scientific households. But beside these titans of invention, there are some equally important if decidedly lesser-known scientific minds. These unsung heroes go broadly unrecognised despite their huge contributions to science and to how we live today. One such person is John Bannister Goodenough – a scientist relatively unknown outside his field and yet whose work can be found in the pocket of the majority of people on the planet. John B. Goodenough and his pioneering work in lithium-ion batteries made the modern world as we know it possible.

Early Days

Despite being an American, John B. Goodenough was in fact born in Germany in 1922. Growing up in a family of scholars and scientists, it’s no surprise that Goodenough also followed the path of academia – but not before serving as a meteorologist during World War II. He finally graduated with a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 1952, after which he went on to become a research scientist and team leader at MIT. The work he did at MIT played an integral role in the development of computer memory, or RAM, but it wasn’t until John began his tenure at the equally prestigious University of Oxford that the path to his crowning achievement really began.

The birth of the lithium-ion battery

Goodenough started working on the concept of lithium batteries in 1979. By then the technology was already almost a decade old. Although building on the formative work of others, it was Goodenough who moved the technology along and who created the rechargeable batteries, which are the lynchpin of much of today’s technology. When his team first began work on the lithium-ion battery, capacity was a big problem. So much so, in fact, that commercial products powered by these batteries were not practical.

It was in the field of increased capacity that John B. Goodenough worked his magic; discovering a new chemical reaction which led to the creation of the lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) battery – more specifically, the cobalt oxide cathode component. Not only did this double the capacity of lithium-ion batteries – it made them rechargeable too. John B. Goodenough may not have known it at the time, but he had just changed the world, or at least how much of it was powered, forever.

The living legacy of lithium-ion

At the time the Goodenough’s discoveries went largely unheralded, happening as it did in a less than the glamourous field of portable power cells. Indeed due to Oxford University declining to patent Goodenough’s discovery, he was to receive no royalties from this aspect his work. Although many years later he would receive the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry - this being jointly awarded to Goodenough and his collaborators Akira Yoshino and M. Stanley Whittingham in 2019.

However unheralded at the time of their invention, Goodenough’s discoveries have left a legacy that is anything but small. In fact, the discovery of the lithium-ion battery’s power centre – the cobalt oxide cathode – led directly to much of the smart technology we enjoy today. Here’s just a small snapshot of what this the lithium-ion battery and it’s successors power today:

  • Smartphones and tablets
  • Digital cameras
  • Pacemakers
  • Hearing aids
  • Emergency power backups (UPS)
  • Solar panel power storage
    … and many, many more

The lithium-ion battery really is at the heart of modern life. Our digital world revolves around the internet, and it’s portability – in the guise our smartphones and tablets. And each and every one has inside it a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Without the pioneering work done by John B. Goodenough in Oxford in the early 80s, most of these rechargeable items would not be possible.
The lives and activities of many people, all over the world, have been improved immensely, by a man very few of them have heard of; John Bannister Goodenough, the pioneer of lithium-ion.



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