In 1980, Goodenough then 57, aided by a team of post-docs at Oxford University invented the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode, the pivotal component of every lithium-ion battery. In 1991, Sony combined Goodenough’s cathode and a carbon anode into the world’s first commercial rechargeable lithium-ion battery, a product that revolutionized portable electronics.
Today, at 92, Goodenough leads another team of young scientists at the University of Austin, looking for another breakthrough. Not for him the incremental advances pursued by Tesla. Goodenough is dismissive of such “tinkering” and its measly 7% or 8% a year in added efficiency. “You need something that will give you a little bit of a step,” he says, “not an increment.”
This time he is working on developing a stable anode of pure lithium or sodium metal. If it can be done, the resulting battery would have 60% more energy than current lithium-ion cells, instantly pitting electric cars squarely against combustion. A pure metal anode is the holy grail of re-chargeable batteries because it combines light weight with high energy density, which could lead to smaller batteries with more power per volume and weight. But the metal reacts with the electrolyte and can change shape which can short the battery or, worse, build up heat to the point of explosion. It’s a problem that has proved intractable, so far, though researchers at Stanford University report that they have designed just such a pure lithium anode.