Brain scan

John Goodenough

The man who helped invent the lithium-ion battery is still trying to reinvent it

“I WANT TO solve the car problem. I’d like to get all the gas [petrol] emissions off the highways of the world. I’m hoping to see it before I die. I’m 96 years old. There’s still time.” Delivered with an infectious chuckle, these words sum up what makes John Goodenough of the University of Texas a living legend in the world of batteries.

Almost 40 years after his pioneering electrochemistry helped usher in the era of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, he is still trying to tame his troublesome brainchild. Today’s mobile phones and electric vehicles contain the same core battery components as when Sony first introduced them in 1991: a liquid electrolyte, a lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode (the positive side of the battery), developed by Dr Goodenough, and a carbon anode (the negative side of the battery), pioneered by Akira Yoshino in Japan.

But as Dr Goodenough has been pointing out for years, serious drawbacks persist. The electrolyte is flammable. If the battery is charged too fast, the anode grows dendrites (“…