UT professor becomes oldest person to win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

A University of Texas at Austin professor has become the oldest person to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at 97.

John B. Goodenough, a professor at UT Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering, was awarded the 2019 prize with Stanley Whittingham of the State University of New York at Binghamton and Akira Yoshino of Meijo University in Japan "for the development of lithium-ion batteries."

Goodenough, born in 1922, identified and developed the critical materials that provided the high-energy density needed to power portable electronics, initiating the wireless revolution, according to a release from UT Austin. Batteries incorporating his materials are used worldwide for mobile phones, power tools, laptops, tablets, and other wireless devices, as well as electric and hybrid vehicles.

"Billions of people around the world benefit every day from John's innovations," UT Austin president and former dean of the Cockrell School Gregory L. Fenves said. "In addition to being a world-class inventor, he's an outstanding teacher, mentor and researcher. We are grateful for John's three decades of contributions to UT Austin's mission."

In 1979, Goodenough showed that by using lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode of a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, it would be possible to achieve a high density of stored energy with an anode other than metallic lithium. This discovery led to the development of carbon-rich materials allowing for the use of stable and manageable negative electrodes in lithium-ion batteries.

"Live to 97 (years old) and you can do anything," said Goodenough said in a statement. "I'm honored and humbled to win the Nobel prize. I thank all my friends for the support and assistance throughout my life."

Jianshi Zhou is a research professor at UT. He's worked alongside Goodenough since 1987 when Zhou was a grad student.
Zhou says, “to me, he deserves a second Nobel Prize in physics for his fundamental understanding of magnetism.”
He adds, “this award was overdue but still quite surprising.”
Third-year student Nicholas Grunvish says this award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving person.
"He's my Ph.D. thesis advisor. I do work in his lab and if I get results I go bring them to him and we discuss the scientific aspects of it. He gives me direction and things like that,” he said. “It's really nice someone in that stature someone with as many accomplishments as him to still be very humble and down to earth, he really sets a good example in the lab to never get too big-headed if that makes sense.

Colleagues and students say age has definitely been on Goodenough's side.

"He's 97 years old but he's always has a fresh mind when he comes to work and new ideas," Zhou said

Goodenough was in London this week receiving a Copley Medal, the world's oldest scientific prize. Grunvish says Goodenough’s work has inspired his own career path.

“I want to do research for the rest of my life now," Grunvish said. "On paper, I wasn't maybe the best looking student and he was kind enough to let me join his group studying under him and I had the best experience of a lifetime."

Goodenough began his career at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1952, where he laid the groundwork for the development of random-access memory (RAM). After leaving MIT, he became professor and head of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Oxford.

After retiring from Oxford in 1986, Goodenough joined UT Austin, where he serves as the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair of Engineering. He also holds faculty positions in the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Goodenough earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Yale in 1944 and has a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago. He is the recipient of numerous national and international honors, including the Japan Prize, the Enrico Fermi Award, the Charles Stark Draper Prize, and the National Medal of Science.

Goodenough is one of two current Nobel laureates at UT Austin, joining physicist Steven Weinberg who won the prize in 1979. Two other UT Austin professors, both now deceased, also won Nobel Prizes: Hermann J. Muller in medicine and physiology in 1946 and Ilya Prigogine in chemistry in 1977. Alumnus J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2003. Two alumni have also won Nobel Prizes during the past two years, Michael Young and Jim Allison, who respectively won the prize for medicine or physiology in 2017 and 2018.

Goodenough will receive a medal, cash prize, and diploma at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.