How a 94-Year-Old Genius May Save the Planet; John Goodenough's Lithium-Ion Batteries Changed Consumer Electronics in the 1980s. Can His New, Glass-Based Batteries Spur the Electric Car Revolution?

By Maney, Kevin | Newsweek, March 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

How a 94-Year-Old Genius May Save the Planet; John Goodenough's Lithium-Ion Batteries Changed Consumer Electronics in the 1980s. Can His New, Glass-Based Batteries Spur the Electric Car Revolution?


Maney, Kevin, Newsweek


Byline: Kevin Maney

A man old enough to be Mark Zuckerberg's great-grandfather just unveiled energy storage technology that might save the planet.

John Goodenough is 94, and his current work could be the key to Tesla's future--much as, decades ago, his efforts were an important part of Sony's era of dominance in portable gadgets. Over the years, Goodenough has scuffled with Warren Buffett, wound up screwed by global patent wars, never got rich off a headline-grabbing initial public offering and defied the American tech industry's prejudice that says old people can't innovate.

Contrast that with the way we celebrate Evan Spiegel, who at 26 is worth $5 billion because he co-created Snapchat, an app that will probably impact humanity over the long run as profoundly as Cap'n Crunch cereal. Maybe.

Goodenough announced in early March that he and his team at the University of Texas at Austin had invented a glass-based battery that blows away the performance of every previous kind of battery, including lithium-ion batteries--which were invented in the 1980s by--him. So right now, Goodenough's technology is powering your smartphone, laptop, electric toothbrush, Tesla and any other rechargeable electronic thing you own. Lots of inventors claim they're working on breakthrough types of batteries. Goodenough is the only one who can also say he's done it before.

Goodenough's new battery can store three times more energy than a comparable lithium-ion battery, according to the very serious Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). The new battery also solves some other lithium-ion troubles. Like, it won't catch fire, so a hoverboard won't suddenly melt your kid's Vans as she scoots across the playground. The IEEE also reports that Goodenough's batteries seem to be able to soak up in minutes as much charge as a lithium-ion battery gets in hours.

Battery technology may not make you swoon, but it is the missing link in getting the planet off carbon-based energy. Oil, coal and natural gas are such effective energy sources because they can be stored and burned whenever needed--whether in a car's gas tank or at an electric plant. Solar and wind generate electricity only when nature cooperates, and batteries are the lone way to store electricity to be used anytime. If batteries become cheap, powerful, safe and quick to charge, one of carbon's big advantages disappears. The headline on the IEEE's report even asked: "Will a New Glass Battery Accelerate the End of Oil?"

This breakthrough could finally make gasoline-powered, emission-spewing cars seem as gross and old-timey as an outhouse. If Goodenough's battery works as advertised, Tesla, General Motors and other automakers could sell electric cars that would travel 600 miles on a charge. Recharging would take about as long as a stop for breakfast at a Waffle House. "I think we have the possibility of doing what we've been trying to do for the last 20 years," Goodenough told the IEEE. "That is, to get an electric car that will be competitive in cost and convenience with the internal combustion engine."

Goodenough has been chasing that goal for nearly 50 years. In the 1970s, while working as a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries hurled the U. …

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