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Inventor of the lithium-ion battery, Professor John Goodenough, awarded Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal

23 May 2019

Professor John Goodenough from the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has been awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, the world’s oldest scientific prize. Already a fellow of the Royal Society, Goodenough is being honoured for his exceptional contributions to materials science, including his discoveries that led to the invention of the rechargeable lithium battery—used in devices like laptops and smartphones worldwide.

As the latest recipient of the Royal Society’s premier award, Professor Goodenough joins an elite group of men and women, such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Hodgkin, who have been awarded the Copley Medal for their exceptional contributions to science and engineering in the past.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said, “Professor Goodenough has a rich legacy of contributions to materials science in both a fundamental capacity, with his defining work on the properties of magnetism, to a widely applicable one, with his ever-advancing work on batteries, including those powering the smartphone in your very pocket. The Royal Society is delighted to recognise his achievements with the Copley Medal, our most prestigious prize.”

On hearing the news, Professor Goodenough said, “Words are not sufficient to express my appreciation for this award. My ten years at Oxford were transformative for me, and I thank especially those who had the imagination to invite a U.S. non-academic physicist to come to England to be a Professor and Head of the Oxford Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory. I regret that age and a bad leg prevent my travel back to England to celebrate such a wonderful surprise.”

Professor Goodenough is currently serving as the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, where he continues to work on new battery technology. Though his lithium-ion breakthrough provided a reliable, rechargeable battery, it is, at the same time, weak, expensive and flammable—shortcomings Professor Goodenough aims to overcome with his latest work on solid-state batteries.

Innovations in battery technology, such as the lithium-ion-based model, helped liberate society from its reliance on cables. Professor Goodenough now aims to develop technology with an even bolder end goal: to liberate society from its dependence on fossil fuels.

He began his research career in 1952 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory where he was part of a team that developed random-access magnetic memory (RAM) – a technology still used in digital computing. Building on this experience, he authored ‘Magnetism and the Chemical Bond’, a treatise and modern-day classic textbook on the behaviour of magnetic interactions. He helped lay the foundations for developing a set of rules for predicting signs of super-exchange interactions in solids, known as the Goodenough-Kanamori rules.

After his time at MIT, Professor Goodenough led the University of Oxford’s Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory. His research focused on the implementation of lithium as a potential cathode material for batteries – pioneering work that was to form the basis for the first commercial lithium-ion battery, still used in mobile electronics all around the world. In 1986 his curiosity and expertise drew him to a position at the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT Austin, where he has remained ever since.

The Copley Medal was first awarded by the Royal Society in 1731, 170 years before the first Nobel Prize. It is awarded for outstanding achievements in scientific research. In recent years, recipients include eminent scientists such as Peter Higgs, the physicist who hypothesised the existence of the Higgs Boson, as well as DNA fingerprinting pioneer Alec Jeffreys, and Andre Geim, who discovered graphene. Last year’s winner, Professor Jeffrey Gordon, was honoured for his contributions to understanding the role of gut microbial communities to human health and disease.

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