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John Goodenough: Supercharged

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John Goodenough

Pioneering portable power was just the beginning for this professor and donor

Take a quick look around.

You’re probably within arm’s length of a John Goodenough invention. Goodenough, a mechanical engineering professor in UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, helped launch the wireless revolution with his development of the cathodes of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which powers our mobile phones, laptop computers, iPods, and other portable electronic devices.

Honored in 2011 as a UT Austin Inventor of the Year, Goodenough has found that his inventions aren’t the only way he can change the world. He’s also a donor to the university, giving both outright gifts and establishing future gifts to support a lab at the Texas Materials Institute.

“When the faculty give, it shows that they believe in the institution,” he said. “I wanted to set an example.”

Goodenough’s gifts to the university benefit the John B. and Irene W. Goodenough Endowed Research Chair in Engineering, which supports a high-pressure lab in the Texas Materials Institute. The lab tests pressures as high as those found in the Earth’s lower mantle.

Temperature is the variable most commonly used in materials testing. The lab adds pressure as a variable, allowing researchers to explore properties of materials not seen under normal conditions.

“I thought the university needed this kind of infrastructure if they’re going to be a research university,” Goodenough said.

Goodenough and his wife, Irene, have created several charitable gift annuities benefiting their endowment. With a charitable gift annuity, you make a gift to the university and in exchange receive a fixed income for life. Goodenough likes the security of knowing he can count on those payments for medical and other expenses. And he likes knowing that after his lifetime the money will be used the way he wants.

John Goodenough in his office

Goodenough, who turns 90 this summer, still teaches and still invents. He’s still dedicated to finding new ways to store energy.

“The next important problem we need to solve is energy independence,” he said. “We need to wean ourselves from dependence on foreign oil, and we need to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

“That is why I work in the energy area — because I believe it’s something that cries out for a solution and it’s not going to be an easy thing to solve. We’d like to be able to use the wind and the sun as sources of energy, but we can’t do it without energy storage.”

That’s where Goodenough comes in. His latest work focuses on the fundamental properties of transition-metal oxides as well as their use in batteries and fuel cells.

Goodenough first developed the cathodes used in lithium-ion batteries while a professor at England’s Oxford University. Before heading the inorganic chemistry lab at Oxford, Goodenough worked at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where he was on the team that developed the first random access memory for computers. He retired from Oxford and in 1986 joined UT, where he continued to improve lithium-ion batteries, patenting a lighter, longer-lasting version (intended for use in power tools and electric vehicles) with UT and the Canadian company Hydro-Quebec.

Goodenough is clear: He doesn’t work alone. His teams include postdoctoral researchers, students, and visiting scientists. He compares himself to the conductor of a symphony.

“I think my talent has been to create an environment in which other people can be creative,” he said.

He developed a strong appreciation for teamwork while serving as a meteorologist during World War II.

“As a soldier, I was one fellow in a great machine,” he said. “I wasn’t going to win the war by myself, but it was important that I do my job to the best of my ability.”

Working together isn’t just for people, he says. It’s also for scientific disciplines.

“Nobody does everything. We don’t work in isolation, nor should we,” he said. “The way forward is interdisciplinarity. We have to bring together science and engineering and chemistry and physics. We need to develop these interactions within the university.”

And within the individual. The university’s well-rounded education — emphasizing both the humanities and the sciences — prepares students not only for careers but also for life, Goodenough says.

“There’s a difference between being trained and being educated,” he said.

Goodenough was educated. He studied the classics in secondary school — he can still rattle off a string of canonical Latin quotations — then shifted to math as an undergraduate. After the war, he started fresh with a challenging new discipline: physics. Goodenough’s specialty — materials science — blends elements of engineering, chemistry, and physics, so he’s had to pick up engineering and chemistry, too.

“I went from the classics to mathematics to physics to chemistry to engineering,” he said.
“The only thing they tell me that I have left is theology.”

He’s only half joking.

“If I were to retire from the university, I would then go to writing in another venue entirely,” he said. “I would be tempted to actually take that step into theology.”

He doesn’t see it as much of a leap. As a scientist, Goodenough believes in the laws of nature, but he also believes in the laws of a higher power. He has written a paper, “Under the Judgment of the Holy,” exploring that idea.

“We have to understand the moral principles that govern life as well as we have to understand the physical principles,” he said.

Being spiritual isn’t just about judgment, though. It’s also about gratitude and wonder.

“All I can say is a mysterious hand has opened doors one after another as were needed, for which I am most grateful,” he said. “And you can interpret that in any way you like.”

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