Until the announcement of his selection as a Nobel laureate, Dr. Goodenough was relatively unknown beyond scientific and academic circles and the commercial titans who exploited his work. He achieved his laboratory breakthrough in 1980 at the University of Oxford, where he created a battery that has populated the planet with smartphones, laptop and tablet computers, lifesaving medical devices like cardiac defibrillators, and clean, quiet plug-in vehicles, including many Teslas, that can be driven on long trips, lessen the impact of climate change and might someday replace gasoline-powered cars and trucks.
Like most modern technological advances, the powerful, lightweight, rechargeable lithium-ion battery is a product of incremental insights by scientists, lab technicians and commercial interests over decades. But for those familiar with the battery’s story, Dr. Goodenough’s contribution is regarded as the crucial link in its development, a linchpin of chemistry, physics and engineering on a molecular scale.
In 2019, when he was 97 and still active in research, Dr. Goodenough became the oldest Nobel Prize winner in history when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that he would share the $900,000 award with two others who made major contributions to the battery’s development: M Stanley Whittingham from New York, and Akira Yoshino from Tokyo. Dr. Goodenough received no royalties for his work on the battery, only his salary for six decades as a scientist and professor at the M.I.T, Oxford and the University of Texas. Caring little for money, he signed away most of his rights. He shared patents with colleagues and donated stipends that came with awards to research and scholarships.
A congenial presence since 1986 on the Austin campus, where he amazed colleagues by remaining inventive well into his 90s, he had been working in recent years on a superbattery that he said might someday store and transport wind, solar and nuclear energy, transforming the national electric grid and perhaps revolutionising the place of electric cars in middle-class life, with unlimited travel ranges and the ease of recharging in minutes.