In 2015, Elon Musk had said: “Today’s batteries are problematic simply because they are trash”. That’s why his company, Tesla, is employing a strategic revolution about battery.

One of the biggest projects at Tesla at the moment is the Gigafactory project on the production of Powerwall batteries, with the aim that by 2020, Tesla will be able to produce a total capacity of 50 GW/h, enough to fuel half a million of electric cars. In March 2019, Elon Musk had announced his success in finding a new battery technology. And in September 2019, it was further announced that the new technology allowed batteries to stay in use for 1 million miles, able to run 1200km after each charge. Finally, in October 2019, The Nobel Prize for Chemistry is awarded to chemists S.Wittingham and A.Yoshino, as well as physicist J.Goodenough for their work on Li-Ion battery.

Nowadays, you can find batteries everywhere, from laptops, tablets, to mobile devices. Furthermore to counter the energy crisis where fossil fuels (like coal and oil) are starting to drain, people are turning towards renewable energy, where a new generation of battery and accumulator proves to be necessary. Battery is crucial in the space industry – where the need for battery and on site energy generation is high, as well as in industrial environments and defense and security. Therefore, it is safe to say that the matter of battery is a matter of life and death in the future, itself being a potential limitless market. And such, are the meaning to this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

John B. Goodenough conversing with his students at the University of Texas. Photo: University of Texas

The principle of tradition battery is simple enough – it is taught in high school: a battery comprises of the anode and the cathode, often made of metal like copper or zinc. When dipped in an ionized environment and connected to an electric source like sulphuric acid, positive hydrogen ions will be attracted to the anode, while negative ones will be attracted to the cathode, creating a voltage between the two nodes. When in use, electrons will run from the cathode to the anode, releasing the ions gathered at the two nodes, dissipating them into the ionized solution. In latter batteries, nodes can be made of carbon, lead, and other materials, and ionized solution can also be replaced, but the general principle of the Volta battery stays the same over 200 years.

When the globe faced an oil crisis in the 1970s, S. Wittingham, a professor at the University of Binghamton, New York who was researching on superconductors, had decided to use his knowledge on battery, and from which suggested making Li-Ion batteries with cathodes made from Titan disulfide. The special thing about this alloy is that it highly mixed with Lithium molecules. Wittingham also suggested making the anode with Lithium, which can easily separate electrons, creating a 2V difference in voltage in comparison with other types of battery. All in all, the voltage is born out of positive Lithium ions moving towards the anode, later to be stored there. When in use, electrons will move from the cathode to the anode, balancing out the Lithium ions there. However, the Li-Ion battery has got a deadly weakness – its anode are prone to fire and explosions.

President Barack Obama giving John B. Goodenough the National Medal of Science, 2013. Photo: Reuters.

From a physicist in the RAM development department of MIT, J. Goodenough moved to work as a professor and head of the inorganic chemistry lab at the University of Oxford in the late 1980s. This has opened his doors to the field of Li-Ion battery, where he had improved Wittingham’s work, reaching a strikingly high voltage of 4V. In particular, he had suggested replacing the cathode with another alloy – the cobalt oxide, based on one of his previous predictions that oxides can reach higher voltages than disulfide alloys. And it was from this principle of Goodenough that in 1985, A.Yoshino from Asahi Kassei and Meijo University, had successfully developed the first commercial Li-ion battery, with the anode made of polyacetylene mixed with Lithium. This material had greatly reduced risk of fire and explosion of the traditional Li-ion battery, thus popularizing the invention – which now accounts for the majority of the battery market. The Li-ion is small and compact, and non-polluting compares to traditional acid and lead batteries.

Even now, the 97-year-old professor Goodenough is still working full time, for 48 hours per week at the Mechanical Engineering Department of the University of Texas, Austin. He had started working here since the age of 64 – a retirement age for many of his colleagues, and even after 33 years, he is still putting out important inventions, including improvement suggestions on the Li-ion battery.

And yet, Goodenough’s profession has not always been smooth. Born in 1922 with dyslexia, he struggled in reading and understanding words, and thus was often treated as a slow-developed student. To make up for his inability, Goodenough tried reading a lot of poems and philosophy texts with difficult words, and yet his struggles continued even in college. However, the attempts had left him with tremendous knowledge on history and linguistics, leading him to find his partner in life in a history major at the University of Chicago. After graduating as Math major from Yale, where his father taught history, Goodenough went for military service. He was discharge at 30 years old, and it was then that he applied for after-graduate in the University of Chicago to study Physics. His knowledge about science was still limited then, and the admission official at the time, one quite well-known in nuclear physics, had been reluctant at Goodenough, even stating that “Everyone who is remarkable had already reached that at your age.”

With the award announced on the recent October 9, B. Goodenough, a German-originated chemist, is the oldest to be awarded with the Nobel Prize, at 97 years of age.

Goodenough wrote his doctorate thesis with Zener, a theoretical physic professor, whose physics principle is later used to create the Zener diode and is regarded as an important technology in the electronic industry. It was perhaps then that Goodenough’s prone for technology started to show, leading to his future research job in MIT. However, that did not dampen his talent for the theoretical, and in 1955-1959, he had discovered the many features of magnetic materials in collaboration with Kanamori, forming the famous Goodenough-Kanamori principle.

He became a professor out of his fifties, and was put in charge of the inorganic chemistry lab at Oxford University. Yet, the university had refused to approve of F.Crick as a genetics professor, even after he was awarded the Nobel Prize with J.Watson thanks to his discovery of the double DNA helix, and later hailed as the founder of genetics. The reason was simple: Crick did not have a diploma in genetics. This was a chance for Goodenough to change his research direct, delving into a new path of technology – the Li-ion battery. Here, he had quickly recognized the potential of it, successfully predicted that oxide alloys would replace disulfide ones, increasing the battery voltage. Soon after, he had invented the new Li-ion battery, with a voltage double of what it was before.

His important contributions had led to an invitation to work as the professor in charge of the University of Texas (Austin)’s battery development program in 1986, only a year after the first commercialized Li-ion battery from A. Yoshino. He was 64 years old then, reach the age of retirement. And yet, throughout 33 years at work, Goodenough devotes wholly to his teaching, researching, and guidance. In 2017, he announced the appearance of a new battery technology, after his mutual discovery with the Portugal female physicist M.H.Blaga, of the replacement of ionized solution in batteries with a glass material. Even until now, he still starts work at 7:30 and ends it at 4:00, having earned myriads of awards before the esteemed Nobel Prize.

He is a bad negotiator, however, and has earned barely any cent from his royalties, despite companies like Sony having earned millions of dollars from Li-ion battery sales. However, Goodenough maintains his viewpoint that scientific research is not about what you gain from it, but is rather about how much you commits to it.

Today, Li-ion batteries is in the lead, taking up 37-49% of the market. However, there are still grounds for it to improve and upgrade, and there exist suggestions of Sodium, Fluoride, Magnesium, and Amoniac batteries, with multiple advantages regarding the environment, costs, and capacity. Most importantly, batter research does not require too costly investments, is suitable to the conditions in Vietnam, and may open up unlimited business opportunities.

About the author:

Dr. Nguyen Ai Viet

It’s “Ai Viet”, not “Viet”, he always repeats. Born in 1954 to a literary family, Dr. Ai Viet specialized in math, and graduated with a Theoretical Physics diploma in Hungary. He earned his doctorate in Vietnam, and was the first Vietnamese to be hailed by the Hungary Academy of Science and Technology as one of the innovative scientists of the world (in generally, only 2 earned in title from this Academy per year). He was invited to the USA in 1991, and had switched to IT since then.

Dr. Ai Viet used to be the head software engineer in information security at large firms like AT&T and Siemens. Following the call of Minister Pham Gia Khiem in 2003, he brought his family back to Vietnam, working as the Deputy Director of Strategic Institute at the Ministry of Information and Communication, and later became the Director of IT Institute at Hanoi National University. Even close to retirement, he still tried his hands at a software company, hoping to one day compete with the giant Google Translate. Now, he is a member of Think Tank, working as a policy consultant for the government. His daughter, who had graduated from a university in the USA, had followed his footsteps back to Vietnam.

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