Nobel-winning alum John Goodenough ’44 B.A. inspires next generation of Yale scientists

John Goodenough ’44 B.A., a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work developing the lithium-ion battery.
John Goodenough ’44 B.A.

John Goodenough ’44 B.A.

John Goodenough ’44 B.A., a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work developing the lithium-ion battery — an honor he shares with Stanley Whittingham of the State University of New York-Binghamton and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University.

As a youngster, Goodenough explored the outdoors in the rural town of Woodbridge, Connecticut, and by the time he left his Episcopalian boarding school for Yale, he was supporting himself independently.

In an interview with Chemical & Engineering News, Goodenough described working “21 hours a week for 21 meals” during his undergraduate days and garnering meals from friends’ families during holiday breaks. He said he was not a strong reader, but was skilled at math, and considered going to medical school.

After Pearl Harbor, Goodenough enlisted, but on the advice of his Yale math professor volunteered for a post in meteorology. Like many Yale alumni who served during WWII, Goodenough was able to complete his degree in just two and a half years, graduating with honors, and a math degree, in 1944. His Yale math professor helped Goodenough find a spot in a prestigious Ph.D. program — studying physics at the University of Chicago. The man running the program was Enrico Fermi, Nobel Prize-winning creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor. Fermi required that Goodenough complete a 32-hour qualifying exam to join the program. He had to take it twice.

Goodenough was drawn to materials science and went on to do decades of research on magnetism at MIT’s Lincoln Lab. In his 50s, Goodenough left MIT for Oxford, where he began his groundbreaking research in batteries. There, in 1979, he developed the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery. From that point forward, he focused his life’s work on making the lithium-ion battery safer and more efficient. His innovative research led directly to the commercial batteries used today in cell phones, laptops, and electric and hybrid vehicles.

Inspiring Yale scientists

Goodenough has inspired generations of scientists, including Rong Fan, Yale associate professor of biomedical engineering. Fan says he remembers reading articles in inorganic chemical journals by Goodenough in the mid-1990s while he was studying in China. “They showed a very elegant, softer chemistry approach to discovering new materials,” Fan says. “I’ve admired him for a decade and he inspired me to work in science.” Fan initially studied applied chemistry before shifting his focus to materials science.

Three years ago, Fan realized a lifelong dream of meeting Goodenough when he went to UT-Austin to give a seminar in the materials program. To his surprise, Goodenough was in the audience. “Even though it was outside his field, he asked terrific questions,” Fan says. Later, the two scientists met in Goodenough’s office, and Fan says Goodenough shared his fond memories of his time at Yale.

Goodenough and Fan
Goodenough and Fan

On a call with reporters following his Nobel win, Goodenough noted that he’s passionate about the technology he’s developed being used for good. “We need to get burning fossil fuels off the highways and freeways of the world and focus on global warming,” Goodenough said. He noted, too, that battery storage is essential for a renewable energy future. “If you’re going to have renewable energy … you need a battery where you can store it.”

At age 97, Goodenough is the oldest-ever winner of a Nobel Prize. When asked what he’s most proud of, he told reporters: “All my friends. I’ve had an interesting career,” he added, “I don’t know whether it’s chance or grace.”

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