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

Goodenough, SM’50, PhD’52, revolutionized the field of battery science with new cathode

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 scientists 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.

At age 97, Goodenough continues to conduct research in the lab, and on Wednesday he became the oldest person ever awarded a Nobel Prize. 

“Life is full of surprises,” said Goodenough during a news conference in London, where he was receiving the prestigious Copley Medal for his contribution to materials technology. “It’s been a very eventful day.”

In the 1970s, Goodenough 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.”

“John Goodenough truly revolutionized modern life with his chemical insight into lithium batteries. His work as a physicist, chemist and engineer is a hallmark of the University of Chicago’s interdisciplinary tradition,” said Prof. Angela Olinto, dean of UChicago’s Division of the Physical Sciences. “This is well-deserved recognition for a career that has been nothing short of extraordinary.” 

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, Goodenough worked at MIT’s Lincoln Lab and then the University of Oxford, where he turned his attention to the emerging field of lithium battery chemistry.

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.

“John Goodenough was one of the early few who brought advanced solid state chemistry and materials science to bear on battery technology,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, which partners with UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory to develop batteries, fuel cells and other energy-storing devices. 

In fact, Goodenough has continued to work well into his 90s; among other ventures, he has served as an adviser to the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a Department of Energy innovation hub based at Argonne, of which UChicago is a member.

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.

“I have learned to be open to surprises,” he once told The University of Chicago Magazine, and to “not have preconceived ideas or close your mind from listening to what might work.”

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.

He was married to Irene Wiseman, a graduate student in history whom he met and wed at at the University of Chicago’s International House, until her death in 2016.

—This article includes material that was previously published in The University of Chicago Magazine.