Austin (KXAN) — “No, I didn’t anticipate anything,” said 97-year-old University of Texas at Austin engineering professor John B. Goodenough on a call with reporters Wednesday, the same day he had been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with two other scientists for the development of the lithium-ion battery.
“It was a very eventful day,” Goodenough laughed. “That’s all I can say.”
UT Austin explained that Goodenough was in London Wednesday receiving another award: the Copley Medal from the Royal Society.
The call with the press was delayed a half-hour because Goodenough “had to put his head down for a quick nap,” a press officer with the Royal Society explained. But after that nap, the professor was jovial and refreshed while talking with reporters.
Goodenough shares the award with M. Stanley Whittingham of the State University of New York at Binghamton and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan.
The total prize amount is 9 million Swedish Krona, which converts to just over $900,000. Each of the three scientists sharing this year’s award, including Goodenough, will get one-third of the share. At a ceremony in Stockholm in December, Goodenough will receive more than $300,000 for this award as well as a medal and a diploma.
“My share of the Nobel prize will go to my University [of Texas at Austin] to support the people who work there,” Goodenough told reporters on the call.
When asked how he thought UT Austin would react to his award, Goodenough replied with a hearty chuckle. “Well, I hope they still keep me employed.”
KXAN asked Goodenough how this award stacked up in the list of things he’s most proud of in life.
“What am I most proud of?” Goodenough said. “I don’t know, I would say, all my friends.”
He laughed again.
“You know I ‘ve had an interesting career and I’ve wrote a book saying, ‘Witness to Grace,'” said Goodenough (who has, in fact, authored a book called Witness to Grace). “And I don’t know whether it’s chance or grace.”
The lithium-ion battery
“This lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery is now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles,” said a release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who awards the prize. “It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
The production of these batteries, the academy said, has allowed for the development of cleaner energy technologies and electric vehicles and consequently reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
They credited Goodenough with an important breakthrough using cobalt oxide that would lead to more powerful batteries.
UT Austin noted in a release that the materials Goodenough developed offered the “high-energy density needed to power portable electronics, initiating the wireless revolution.” Batteries in devices many people use today — from electric vehicles to laptops, to power tools, to cell phones — use cathode materials modeled after the methods Goodenough developed.
UT explained that in 1979 Goodenough made the discovery which showed that, “by using lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode of a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, it would be possible to achieve a high density of stored energy with an anode other than metallic lithium.”
“I’m extremely happy if my memory has been able to help communications through the world, we need to build relationships, not walls,” Goodenough said, reflecting on his work that led to the commercial lithium-ion battery. “We are indeed happy if people use this for good and not for evil.”
Goodenough did note that lithium-ion batteries can’t be charged too fast or overcharged.
“The lithium-ion battery is pretty well developed by now, they made it a commercial product and it’s working very well,” he told reporters. “But it has its limitations so what’s going to,[we’ll] want to do something a little better.”
But for the time being, Goodenough stills seeing this battery being useful to society, so he thinks it will be around “for a while.”
He also hopes that battery-powered technology helps to “get the burning of fossil fuels off the highways.”
A life in pursuit of knowledge
Goodenough was born in Germany in 1922. He received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University and earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago.
His career began in a lab at the Massachusets Institute of Technology where he did work which — according to UT — “he laid the groundwork for the development of random-access memory (RAM) for the digital computer.” Goodenough then became a professor at the University of Oxford where he made his discovery related to lithium-ion.
In 1986, he retired from Oxford and headed to UT Austin where he remains on the faculty today in a role titled “Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair of Engineering” in the Cockrell School. He is one of the two living Nobel laureates on the faculty at UT.
UT Austin explains that Goodenough still aspires to invent more sustainable and efficient battery materials.
“Goodenough and his team recently identified a new safe cathode material for use in sodium-ion batteries,” the university said.
Goodenough himself explained to reporters that he is still working on interesting projects in his lab at UT, his current projects involve work with immobilized liquids and polymers.
“Live to 97 and you can do anything,” said Goodenough in UT Austin’s release. “I’m honored and humbled to win the Nobel prize. I thank all my friends for the support and assistance throughout my life.”
A mentor and a teacher
In 1985, Arumugam “Ram” Manthiram went to Oxford University to work with Goodenough as a postdoctoral fellow. When Goodenough took a job at UT Austin in 1986, Manthiram went with him.
Today, Manthiram is the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering at UT and the Director of the Texas Materials Institute.
“I am doing well at the University of Texas at Austin because I was educated and mentored by [Goodenough], without his mentoring, without the education and knowledge I have learned from him I would not be where I am today,” Manthiram said matter-of-factly. He added that lots of students through the years have been mentored by Goodenough.
Manthiram said he came to work under Goodenough who he sees as the “father of oxide chemistry.”
The two say hello to each other most days at work now because their offices are right next to each other. Manthiram said Goodenough still comes to work at UT Austin every day school is in session.
“He still does research, he publishes papers,” Manthiram explained.
Goodenough’s wife passed away a few years back and he doesn’t have any children, Manthiram said, so the 97-year-old professor will come to work to talk with students and post-doctoral fellows.
“It’s not only science, [Goodenough] is also concerned about what’s going on in the U.S., what is going on around the world, he lived through the Depression,” Manthiram noted. “When something happens here, including politics, he’ll talk about it.”
Manthiram said that he had been expecting Goodenough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for “many years.”
“I go to conferences and people would ask why he hasn’t been given the Nobel Prize yet, the community knows,” Manthiram explained. “But he is a very modest person.”
Manthiram describes Goodenough as “intellectually stimulating,” a gentleman, and an “extremely nice human being.”
“In addition to being a world-class inventor, he’s an outstanding teacher, mentor and researcher,” said UT Austin President Gregory Fenves. “We are grateful for John’s three decades of contributions to UT Austin’s mission.”