[Image above] Who knew something so small could have such a large impact? Credit: RouteJD, Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This Wednesday, October 9, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three scientists who helped develop a technology that revolutionized portable electronics—the lithium-ion battery.

The rechargeable lithium-ion battery is a technology ubiquitous in today’s world. In addition to portable electronics, lithium-ion batteries enabled the development of long-range electric cars and storage of energy from renewable sources. No wonder the Nobel Foundation, when announcing this year’s winners, said “Through their work, this year’s Chemistry Laureates have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”

The winners—John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University—conducted their seminal research in the 1970s and 1980s.

Whittingham laid the groundwork for rechargeable lithium batteries by discovering titanium disulfide has a molecular structure that can house (intercalate) lithium ions.

Whittingham’s battery. Credit: Johan Jarnestad, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Goodenough followed that discovery by showing cathode potential increased when a metal oxide instead of metal sulphide was used.

Goodenough’s battery. Credit: Johan Jarnestad, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Yoshino built on Goodenough’s work by showing more complicated carbon-based electrodes could also house lithium-ions between their layers—eliminating the need for pure lithium in the battery entirely.

Yoshino’s battery. Credit: Johan Jarnestad, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

In light of the lithium-ion battery’s enormous impact on technology, it may be surprising to learn one of this year’s winners did not initially consider his research good enough for a Nobel back in the 1970s.

John Goodenough—a luminary in solid-state physics

“At the time we developed the battery it was just something to do,” Goodenough said in an interview with The Times earlier this year. “I didn’t know what electrical engineers would do with the battery. I really didn’t anticipate cellphones, camcorders, and everything else.”

At 97 years old, Goodenough is the oldest Nobel Prize winner in any discipline. Though Goodenough was surprised to learn he had won the Nobel, his contemporaries were not—his name regularly surfaces each fall when Nobel Prize announcements draw near.

(Check out the #weareallgoodenough hashtag on Twitter.)

John Goodenough speaks with the Royal Society of Chemistry following the announcement he was one of three recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Credit: Royal Society of Chemistry, YouTube

Goodenough began his academic career at Yale University, majoring in mathematics as an undergraduate. But one course away from graduating, the army called for him to serve. (Goodenough volunteered immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but the army delayed a year before calling him in.)

“They were gracious enough to give me credit for the one missing course on my meteorological training in the army. So I managed to finish my undergraduate degree,” Goodenough says in an interview with C&EN.

Following his time in the army, Goodenough decided to pursue a “calling” for physics he felt during his undergraduate years at Yale by enrolling in the physics Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. After graduating in 1952, he moved into his first long-term work position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Defense research center.

Goodenough spent 24 years at Lincoln Laboratory before moving to England to become a professor at the University of Oxford, a move that became the defining period of his scientific career.

“At that time, at Oxford, John was studying the magnetic properties of metal oxides. And he noticed that the structure of cobalt oxides was similar to the structure of the TiS2 that [Whittingham’s] group was using in their battery cathodes,” C&EN reporter Mitch Jacoby says in the interview. “So because of the similarity between the lattice structures of the titanium and the cobalt materials, John reasoned that his cobalt material might also work as an intercalation electrode.”

The cobalt material did work, and in 1991 Sony combined Goodenough’s cathode and a carbon anode into the world’s first commercial rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

When Goodenough neared 65, the age at which Oxford traditionally enforced compulsory retirement of its academic staff, he accepted a position at the University of Texas at Austin and moved back to the United States. Since then, Goodenough is researching a potential new battery revolution using an electrolyte based on glass powder.

At the end of the C&EN interview, Goodenough reflects on his life.

“You know, life is a matter of choices. And some choices are made for us, but we always have to make the choices we can that are presented to us,” he says. “I may not have had any money, but I had people making very nice choices for me all along, so I’ve had a very privileged life.”