From UChicago to Nobel: How John Goodenough sparked the wireless revolution

At age 97, alum and pioneering inventor of the lithium-ion battery to receive Nobel Prize

John B. Goodenough can still remember, word for word, what a University of Chicago professor told him when he arrived on campus following World War II: “I don’t understand you veterans,” said John A. Simpson, a new UChicago instructor who had just helped achieve the first nuclear reaction. “Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics had already done it by the time he was your age—and you want to begin?”

Three-quarters of a century later, at age 97, Goodenough will become the oldest person to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. At a Dec. 10 ceremony in Sweden, he will be honored for pioneering breakthroughs that led to the widespread use of the lithium-ion battery—and helping spark the wireless revolution. The descendants of his batteries now power modern smartphones and hold the potential to one day sustainably harvest solar and wind power.

Goodenough, SM’50, PhD’52, will become the 92nd scholar associated with the University of Chicago to receive a Nobel Prize (joining several of his professors, including Enrico Fermi). Now at the University of Texas at Austin, Goodenough still works every day at his laboratory, researching new types of batteries. “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.”

Find the problem. Solve the problem.

Goodenough struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child, but he taught himself to write and earned a scholarship to boarding school. He had almost completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics at Yale when he was called to active duty in 1943 as an Army meteorologist. (Goodenough had volunteered for the role at a professor’s suggestion; “I didn’t want to be a hero,” he said with a hoot.) Service left him with “the need to somehow do something for everyone”—to contribute, even in a small way, to the greater good.

Shortly after the war that opportunity arrived in the form of a surprise telegram. Federal funds had become available to send a select group of returning Army officers to Chicago to do graduate work in the physical sciences; unbeknownst to Goodenough, a Yale professor had submitted his name. 

Going back to school was a challenge, especially studying a mostly new subject—and especially under Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist whom Goodenough remembers as “old school.” His UChicago professors were also not allowed to collaborate with students on their theses. During their first meeting, Goodenough’s adviser, solid-state physicist Clarence Zener, told him: “You’ve got two problems. The first is to find a problem, and the second is to solve it. Good day.”

Goodenough did both, writing his thesis on how and why the structure of hexagonal metal alloys changes with the concentration of the conduction electrons, and got a PhD in 1952. “You see,” he said of Zener, “he did his job very well.”

While at UChicago, Goodenough met and married Irene Wiseman, a graduate student in history who was also living at the International House on the Hyde Park campus.

They later moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Goodenough’s team—tasked with improving memory capabilities in early computers—developed ceramic magnetic memory cores that enabled the first random-access memory (RAM). He worked at MIT for more than two decades, and his work laid the foundation for future design of magnetic materials and aided the development of computers.

Pioneering work on batteries

In 1976, he joined Oxford University and turned his attention to electrochemistry, including batteries.

That same year, Exxon patented the world’s first lithium-based battery, designed by M. Stanley Whittingham (with whom Goodenough shared the Nobel this year). The low weight and large voltage capacity of Whittingham’s battery, together with the fact that it was designed to work at room temperature, made it a major breakthrough. However, as the battery charged and discharged, some internal surfaces became rough, eventually spawning long narrow fingers of lithium metal that caused internal short-circuits.

Goodenough’s previous work made him think he could improve on Whittingham’s design. In 1980, he completed his lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode—the “positive” side of the battery. Meanwhile, scientists in Japan and Switzerland were developing a model for the anode, or  “negative” side of a battery, that worked well with Goodenough’s oxide cathode. The resulting lithium-ion battery cell safely gave a voltage of 4 volts, compared with 2.4 volts from Whittingham’s cell. Moreover, the battery, when made to industry standards with internal safety features, runs a very low risk of overheating and exploding.

Engineers at Sony recognized the potential of the breakthrough. In 1991 they commercialized a battery using Goodenough’s cathode, which ended up sparking the mobile revolution.

Goodenough’s original lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode structure is still used in the lithium-ion batteries found in almost all personal electronics like smartphones and tablets. He’s since made several improvements on the technology; batteries using a lithium-manganese-oxide cathode, developed in his lab and refined at UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, are now used in many electric cars. His lithium-iron-phosphate cathode, completed in the 1990s, is found in most modern power tools.

When he was tinkering with different oxides back at Oxford, Goodenough had no idea of the impact his battery would have, he said. “I just knew it was something I should do.” 

And it’s something he’s still doing at the University of Texas, where he works alongside graduate students and postdocs on a new battery to reduce our use of fossil fuels—and the greenhouse gases created as they’re converted to electricity. The goal is to one day provide a reliable, efficient way to store and transport wind and solar energy.

“We have to, in the near future, make a transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a dependence on clean energy,” he said. “So that’s what I’m currently trying to do before I die”—to leave behind a cleaner, better world.

At his age, Goodenough added: “You don’t have much time left, and you really want to be able to solve the problem. And I think we’re on the cusp of being able to do it.” 

—Adapted from an article published by Helen Gregg in The University of Chicago Magazine.