In the United States, if you can succeed well ahead of your years, well, society says, you're the source of inspiration for everyone else. (Mark Zuckerberg, Adam D'Angelo, Michelle Phan, Tracy Chou, we're looking at you.) But youth doesn't have to be a prerequisite for career success, let alone individual innovations. Samuel Morse, for instance, didn't come up with Morse code until he was 47. And according to research by Benjamin Jones, the average age at which inventors are having their aha! moments is increasing--the median age of an inventor in the United States is 47.

John B. Goodenough is one inventor proving age means nothing when it comes to churning out history-changing concepts. As Kelly Hodgkins of Digital Trends reports, the 94-year-old inventor is working with a team of researchers to develop a new, solid-state battery.

One battery, multiple energizing improvements

Goodenough's new battery reportedly would be capable of storing three times what today's lithium-ion batteries can handle. But that's just the start of what's going to make companies and consumers giddy. The battery, which features a glass electrolyte coated with sodium or lithium,

  • charges super fast (we're talking done-by-the-time-you-finish-a-snack fast, not the painful hours that seem like eternity);
  • can handle temperature extremes (it's fine anywhere from minus-4 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-20 to 60 degrees Celsius), so even if you're hunkered in an ice fishing shanty or making your way on a camel through the Sahara, you're good);
  • Is capable of at least 1,200 charge-discharge cycles (that's more than double the maximum of 500 that manufacturers generally specify for lithium-ion); and
  • Doesn't produce dendrites during the charge-discharge cycle. (You know, dendrites. Those microscopic lithium fibers that accumulate and cause batteries to overheat and sometimes catch fire.)

Laptops, phones, cars, solar--and that's just for starters

Goodenough and his team aren't quite finished with the new battery. They've only created the glass-based anode. But they're working out kinks with the cathode, and soon they'll be able to make some large-scale cells. That's going to be a monumental point, because many of today's technologies are held back only by battery capabilities. The new solid-state version could improve basics like phones and laptops, but as Hodgkins points out, a bigger prize is powering electric cars, such as those by Tesla. Clean energy systems (e.g., wind, solar) also could use the new batteries. The benefits identified above, combined with the projected lower cost, finally could make those "green" products more practical than other options and turn them into the new standard.

Smarts, passion, and some luck

Part of what makes Goodenough's accomplishment so incredible is how he arrived at battery work in the first place--a lot of it was chance. Despite being distanced from his parents and suffering from dyslexia in his early years, Goodenough managed to snare a place at Yale, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics. After time in the army, thanks to a Yale professor who remembered him, Goodenough entered a program designed to help veterans pursue graduate study in math and physics. That connected him to some of the best physicists of the time and springboarded him to a position at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

As the political climate shifted, Goodenough was hired to teach inorganic chemistry at Oxford University. And it was while at Oxford that Goodenough heard about the work of Stan Whittingham, who discovered how to use lithium ions to create a rechargeable battery. Drawing on his experience (specifically his time at MIT), Goodenough created the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode, which solved problems Whittingham's battery had and, unsurprisingly, went commercial with Sony in 1991.

Since that blockbuster, Goodenough has enjoyed plenty of accolades. But he doesn't feel done yet. Recognizing the energy and environmental crises the world currently has, he estimates that his field has only about 30 years to come up with a "super battery" before the world starts feeling environmental and resource difficulties. He readily acknowledges he's not the only brain who can tackle the challenge, but he's dedicated to focusing on it.

"I want to solve this problem before my chips are in," he told Steve Levine of Quartz. "I'm only 92," he added. "I still have time to go."

It's not clear when Goodenough's new battery will be completely finished and ready for commercial manufacturing. But given the massive amount of energy we consume each and every day, it's pretty safe to say that Goodenough's idea is wonderfully powerful.

Published on: Mar 10, 2017
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