Austin's NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UT Austin's John Goodenough, who changed the world with batteries, dies at 100

 John Goodenough smiles at the camera from his classroom at UT Austin in May 2017.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Professor John Goodenough won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for his role in inventing the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. He said at the time he planned for his share of the reward to go to UT Austin.

John Goodenough, the UT Austin professor awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 for his role in inventing the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, has died at the age of 100.

If you are reading these words on a portable electronic device, you have him to thank.

His breakthroughs in battery technology paved the way for the digital age, allowing things like cellphones and laptop computers to proliferate. Still working well into his 90s, he predicted that his research on energy storage would next spark “a big revolution" toward cleaner, climate-friendly, renewable energy, in a 2017 interview with KUT.

The fact of the matter is that modern society cannot continue to be dependent on fossil fuels,” he said.

But for all his impacts on the world of technology, Goodenough himself could come across like someone from an earlier era. In that 2017 interview, he told KUT that he never even learned to type, preferring to write his thoughts by hand.

I don't think through the typewriter. I think through the pen,” he said “I'm an old-fashioned man.”

Goodenough was born in 1922 in Jena, Germany. When he was a child, his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where his father taught at Yale University.

Goodenough served as a meteorologist in World War II. After receiving a doctorate from the University of Chicago, he worked as a researcher at MIT, where he helped develop random-access memory (RAM) for digital computers. He then went to the University of Oxford, where he made his big lithium-ion discovery.

“I retired twice” before arriving at UT in 1986, he told KUT. “Now I'm here. All the young people that I had as post-docs are getting ready to retire.”

In 2017, at the age of 94, Goodenough again rocked the world of science when he and his colleague Helena Braga announced they had developed a new “solid state” battery. A discovery that, they said, would lead to faster-charging and more stable energy storage.

While some were skeptical of Goodenough and Braga’s findings, the technology attracted the attention of big investors, including Canadian energy giant Hydro Quebec, which announced plans to commercialize it.

Goodenough received numerous national and international honors, including the Japan Prize, the Enrico Fermi Award and the National Medal of Science.

Despite the accolades he was quick to share credit for his work.

The lithium-ion battery has had a very nice success in changing the way people communicate with one another,” he told KUT. “But the electrical engineers did a surprisingly wonderful job of how you can do things with these portable electronic devices. So give the electrical engineers some credit, too.”

In 2019, after Goodenough was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, he was asked how he would be received by his colleagues at UT Austin upon his return.

"I hope they still keep me employed," he joked.

By then, his longevity had become almost as legendary among fellow researchers as his contributions to science.

When asked by KUT in 2017 what his “secret” was, he summed it up with the well-known phrase “work hard, play hard.”

In announcing his death, his friends at UT Austin said he will be remembered as a brilliant scientist, innovator and educator.

“John was one of the greatest minds of our time and is an inspiration. He was a good listener with love and respect for everyone,” said his friend and colleague Ram Manthiram, a professor at UT's Cockrell School of Engineering. “I will always cherish our time together, and we will continue to build on the foundation John established.”

He will also be remembered for his infectious laughter, which could often be heard echoing through the halls of the university. You can listen to that here:

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
Related Content