Innovation in Alternative Energy: A Look at Professor John Goodenough

Colleen O’Neill | Assistant Editor of Humanities

As a pre-med student in the College of Liberal Arts, I rarely find myself researching topics outside of my field – especially lithium-ion batteries and alternative fuel sources. However, when I heard that University of Texas at Austin’s own Professor John Goodenough, the current Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair of Engineering, had been awarded the prestigious Samson Prize, I spent hours browsing the internet, finding myself awed by Professor Goodenough’s research.

The prestigious Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation is given to scientists who have made substantial contributions to the field of alternative fuel research. The nominees for this prize include a wide pool of leading scientists and, according to the prize’s main webpage, “nominees for the prize should be actively engaged in innovative, paradigm-shifting research in this field that is worthy of significant and widespread attention and recognition.1” In 2011, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel at the time, spearheaded a national program to reduce global dependence on oil and promote research on alternative transportation fuels. Not only is this level of prestige a prize in itself, but it also includes a monetary bonus of $1 million. So, what did Professor Goodenough do to be so outstanding – or, you might say, good enough – to share in such a prize?

In pursuit of the answer, I found myself researching lithium-ion batteries. Whether or not you are familiar with the batteries, you come into contact with them every day. Lithium-ion batteries are simply rechargeable batteries that can be found in everyday items such as your cell phone and laptop. Different materials contribute to the success of the lithium-ion battery; one of these materials is especially ubiquitous today. In 1980, John Goodenough invented the cobalt oxide cathode, a component of the lithium-ion battery that would revolutionize it. The cobalt oxide cathode proved to be “inexpensive, environmentally friendly, safe, sustainable, and capable of thousands of charge cycles with a constant output voltage without a loss of capacity.3” In 1991, SONY made Goodenough’s revolutionized battery available for widespread commercial use.3 And small portable electronic devices are not the only machines utilizing this battery; electric and hybrid vehicles also use lithium-ion batteries as a power source.

Today, even at the age of ninety-two, Goodenough remains determined to find an even more sustainable battery material. His work on the lithium-ion battery in the 1980s was only the beginning of an odyssey into the realms of engineering, physics, and chemistry. Driven by the fact that the world still depends on oil reserves, Professor John Goodenough aims to provide a solution for our lack of a “superbattery.” This battery could hold greater amounts of change, allowing the electricity from solar panels and wind turbines to be stored more effectively. Electric cars could drive further and cell phones could last days before needing to be recharged.

Goodenough will share his Samson Prize with Professor Jay Keasling of Berkeley, who has made significant advances in researching cellulosic biomass as an alterative energy sources. The prize will be awarded on November 10 at the international Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv. Until then, Professor John Goodenough and his postdoctoral assistants will continue to make advances in investigating alternative fuel sources.

Works Cited

  1. Anati, Avi. “The Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation.” Ministry of Science, Technology, and Space. N.p., n.d. Web.
  2. “Goodenough Shares $1 Million Global Prize for Innovation.” UT News. N.p., 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
  3. “John B. Goodenough, Cathode Materials, and Rechargeable Lithium-ion Batteries.” John B. Goodenough, Cathode Materials, and Rechargeable Lithium-ion Batteries. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

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