Technology

John Goodenough Invented The Lithium-Ion Battery—Then May Have Invented Something Better At Age 94

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Most people hope that once they reach 94—which would be a blessing in itself—they still have the faculties to talk with their loved ones and enjoy a good crossword. John Goodenough, the inventor of the battery that's probably powering your mobile devices at this very moment, may have revolutionized battery technology again. At 94. No big deal.

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The Breakthrough

Goodenough is an engineer and professor at the University of Texas who Quartz reports "has dominated the world of advanced batteries" for nearly 40 years. In a 2017 issue of Energy & Environmental Science, he and his team announced that they had created a low-cost, all-solid-state battery that can store at least three times the energy of modern lithium-ion batteries. What's more, it can be fully charged in minutes, and it's noncombustible, solving the fire and explosion problems that can plague today's batteries (Samsung Galaxy Note 7, anyone?).

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In a regular lithium ion battery, the negative side of the battery, called the anode, and the positive side, called the cathode, are connected by an electrolyte made of liquid. The electrolyte is what's responsible for transporting the ions from one side of the battery to the other and creating electricity. Instead of liquid, Goodenough's new battery uses glass, which accomplishes several things. One, the researchers claim it enables the anode to be made from pure lithium or sodium metal, which has a huge amount of potential energy—and, in the case of sodium, is incredibly cheap. Two, it can charge more quickly, since a liquid-electrolyte battery that charges too quickly can form dendrites, or metal whiskers, that cause short circuits and fires. The glass electrolyte also keeps working at temperatures as low as -20º C. All of that is great news for electric vehicles, which are currently limited by short battery life and cold temperatures.

The Skeptics Speak

Unfortunately, this new development is so revolutionary that many experts are dubious over whether it's even physically possible. "If anyone but Goodenough published this," Princeton professor Daniel Steingart told Quartz, "I would be, well, it's hard to find a polite word." Jeff Dahn of Dalhousie University compared it to the engineering holy grail of cold fusion. "Here is an experiment that is unbelievable. There could be a small possibility that it is right."

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The problem is that because Goodenough's battery has pure metallic lithium or sodium on both sides, it shouldn't produce differing electrochemical reactions, and therefore shouldn't be able to produce energy. The published paper doesn't explain where the energy comes from, leaving many engineers scratching their heads—and some comparing it to the pseudoscientific concept of a perpetual motion machine. If Goodenough's invention does turn out to work, however, it could revolutionize battery technology as we know it.

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Glass Batteries With Goodenough's Co-Author Helena Braga

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