John B. Goodenough shares Nobel Prize for invention of lithium-ion battery

University of Chicago alumnus John B. Goodenough was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering role in developing the lithium-ion batteries that now power our cell phones, laptop computers and electric cars.

Goodenough, SM’50, PhD’52, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, was one of three chemists on Oct. 9 recognized as foundational in the field of modern battery chemistry, sharing this year’s prize with M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University in New York and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan. Goodenough is among the  92 scholars associated with the University of Chicago  to receive a Nobel Prize.

In the 1970s, he developed a new formula for the positively charged side of a battery, using cobalt oxide, that revolutionized the design - making it much more powerful than early prototypes. The Nobel Committee, in awarding the prize, called this breakthrough a "decisive step towards the wireless revolution." 

Goodenough arrived at the University of Chicago after serving as a meteorologist in the Army during World War II. He walked into a physics department studded with the top minds in the field, studying under Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi and cosmic ray scientist and co-Manhattan Project leader John A. Simpson. Goodenough’s adviser, Clarence Zener, would himself invent a diode that became a critical component of modern electronics. 

Goodenough was unfazed by Simpson’s proclamation to the group of students arriving as part of a post-war program for veterans: "Don’t you know anyone who’s done anything important in physics has already done it by your age?" Instead, after graduating, he Goodenough worked at MIT’s Lincoln Lab and then Oxford University, where he turned his attention to the emerging field of lithium battery chemistry. 

After graduating, he worked at MIT’s Lincoln Lab and then Oxford University, pursuing an interest in batteries. He took the basic battery design invented by Wittingham and invented a new cathode that greatly stabilized the structure and improved its capacity. Combined with an anode developed by Yoshino, the result was a powerful, safe battery that could be recharged hundreds of times - and in 1991 Sony commercialized the battery.

Goodenough’s original lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode structure is still used in the lithium-ion batteries found in virtually every smartphone and tablet around the world. His variations on the design are everywhere: batteries using a lithium-manganese-oxide cathode, developed in his lab and refined at Argonne National Laboratory, are now used in many electric cars. His lithium-iron-phosphate cathode is found in many modern power tools.

Moreover, lithium batteries can be used to store energy from solar and wind energy-a critical need for renewable energy technologies that only collect electricity when the sun is out or the wind is blowing. "They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind," said the Nobel Committee.

Goodenough’s other awards include the 2011 National Medal of Science, the Japan Prize in 2001 and the Enrico Fermi Award in 2009.

At 97, Goodenough is the oldest Nobel Laureate ever awarded, but he’s still working in the lab. "I have learned to be open to surprises," he told the University of Chicago Magazine in 2016,and to "not have preconceived ideas or close your mind from listening to what might work."

- Nobel citation for John Goodenough

- List of UChicago Nobel laureates

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