John Bannister Goodenough (Professor), the American materials scientist, won the Nobel prize in chemistry at the age of 97 in 2019, becoming the oldest Nobel laureate in history. His groundbreaking discoveries regarding the use of lithium cobalt oxide as a cathode material, led to the creation of the first practical rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is now an integral part of almost every portable electronic device; from your cell phones to your earphones, iPad/iPod, laptops, pacemakers, wrist watches, digital cameras, and even electric cars, to mention but a few. In writing this brief tribute on him, I found myself journeying into my own life and wondering about The Meaning of Purpose…
I have always been driven by curiosity, much before I knew I wanted to become an engineer. Growing through adolescence and teenage years, this engineering curiosity led to disassembling many appliances in our home and while I was always very excited to be able to use a screwdriver and decipher the difference between clockwise and counterclockwise turns of the screw, it often times came to a screeching halt after running into trouble when unable to reassemble the appliances. I was always faced with not just the embarrassment of failure but more with the anxiety of “mummy justice” that was sure to follow as part of consequence management. Mummy-justice was so instantaneous she makes our High Courts look static! I can’t begin to tell you how many Pressing Irons, Transistor Radios, Cassette players, VHS players, Gramophone, and Betamax cartridges that were never reassembled, ever!
While they say it’s curiosity that killed the cat, this “Cat” sure must have had more than nine lives and refused to die, despite the incessant exposure to “mummy justice” in the form of automated strokes of the cane and sometimes, outright loss of weekly allowances which was deemed more stringent as it meant the loss of bragging rights that week. Alas, I can safely say I turned out just good, but how “Good-Enough” will depend on which side of the argument you stand. I went on to secure a BSc Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the prestigious premier University of Ibadan in Nigeria which enabled my early management training and hands on experience in a Cement factory in the North before joining the Oil and Gas industry about thirty years ago.
My journey of life through school, industry, business, and social evolution is one that I somehow still deem partially complete as I have yet to answer the all-important question, “What is my Purpose?.” To the extent that I am still searching for my personal purpose, please don’t ask my zany younger brother, who will be quick to refer to the many damaged appliances in the course of this journey and “what better purpose” I can already hear him say sarcastically.
That said, to date, I continue to wonder and marvel at how all things including human beings were made, despite the biblical account of how Adam was created from dust, and he then donated a rib, which is stronger than dust (pun intended), for Eve to emerge. I wondered what thinking process inventors deployed to discover and produce their inventions, I wondered what I could invent and even patent in my name and by when. I also wonder how Allesandro knew that stacking Zinc and Copper, linking them with cloth soaked in saline water will generate current and in turn electricity. I wonder how Alexander Graham Bell knew he could use sound waves to cause an electric current to vary in intensity and frequency causing diaphragms to vibrate leading to the invention of the telephone.
These thoughts led me to consult with a now late friend of mine, Engineer Moses (may his soul rest in peace) a very deeply spiritual being, who made lots of efforts to help me grow spiritually. Before you start speculating about my spiritual progress, all I can say is the man put in his best to move me along that journey. Engineer Moses gave his viewpoints on how inventions are attained, albeit from a very spiritual perspective which forced my conclusion that I probably will never have any invention in my name, if indeed he was right, spiritual progress or not. Engineer Moses painted a picture of a Wakanda like world where in a spiritual trance you will find yourself in the midst of unimaginable and beyond belief-type science and technologies to make Sci-fi movies look ordinary. With some grace he says, you were allowed to pick an “invention of choice” and once you wake up from your astral trance, somehow the stars will line up and voila, you have an invention and possibly a patent to go with it. I can confirm that my astrophysical flight has yet to take off; maybe because I am just too afraid to venture into the land of the unknown for fear of not returning especially when no one has validated Engineer Moses’ theory of inventions – ‘I cannot come and kee myself’, as they say in Nigerian parlance.
With this insatiable curiosity and deeper consciousness on inventions, I continued to research and found that a lot of exciting discoveries and inventions have been made albeit accidentally from as basic as Corn Flakes by the Kellogs brothers, “Post-It” Papers by Spencer Silver, Penicillin, by Sir Alexander Fleming, which became the base foundation for antibiotics, Micro Wave Oven by Percy Spencer, X-rays by Willem Conrad, Super Glue, Teflon, Synthetic Plastic and even man’s last hope in the twilight of his golden-age “the blue pill ” are all products of serendipitous discoveries and inventions! You have to agree with me that not all ‘accidents’ are bad, if you know what I mean.
It was in the course of my search for more inventions and inventors that I gained consciousness of the works of Professor John Bannister Goodenough, just about the time he won the Nobel prize for chemistry alongside M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University, State University of New York, and Akira Yoshino of Asahi Kasei Corporation, Tokyo, and Meijo University, Nagoya, Japan. The New York Times in 2019, would go ahead to report the then 97-year-old professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, as the oldest Nobel Prize winner in history. Professor Goodenough was one of the many unsung heroes of our time, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and material science, a solid-state physicist, and Electrical Engineering maven. His groundbreaking discoveries regarding the use of lithium cobalt oxide as a cathode material, led to the creation of the first practical rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is now an integral part of almost every portable electronic device; from your cell phones to your earphones, iPad/iPod, laptops, pacemakers, wrist watches, digital cameras, and even electric cars, to mention but a few. In a layperson’s term, it’s his work that led to the advent of rechargeable batteries in electronic gadgets as against the old “Berec” alkaline and non rechargeable types. I continued to follow Professor Goodenough’s works until June 25th this year when at about a month shy of the centenarian age of 101 years, the professor passed on to the great beyond. He will be greatly missed, and I hope that his last set of works get completed by his students for the use of mankind.
I understand they were working on a new technology to produce batteries made of glass by “spiking” glass with either sodium or lithium to form an electrode within the battery, which researchers say will revolutionise battery technology and provide three times the energy storage capacity of comparable lithium-ion batteries to the extent that these batteries will last three times longer on a full charge than what we know today. Can you imagine what our world will become with this much improvement in battery capacity and storage technology? With the current technology, electric cars have already been tested to 1000km at full charge; can you imagine 3000km on a full charge?
That is where I boarded my own astral flight and began to imagine the yet unimaginable and as the German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said: “The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees”.
Think about a world where instead of battery power running down, it runs up and self-charges in perpetuity. Imagine if you only need to charge your car once in its life (as in, you do not need petrol or diesel again ever), your cell phone never runs down, your laptop never runs out of battery life!
Can you imagine the patients with pacemaker powered hearts never needing to worry about their batteries ever running down? Can you imagine the power supply from an inverter and battery banks with Solar panels being forever life to power the energy needs of billions of people around the world? I am absolutely blown away by just the thoughts, and what a world this would be, to imagine that almost everything that requires power can now be powered by this future battery technology that never runs down, bringing an end to all the extant storage capacity challenges we currently face globally.
I am a firm believer that the biggest ultimate game changer in Energy Transition will be technology and we have an incredible future ahead as we all transition to make our planet a better place to live sustainably. Energy poverty is the root of all economic poverties, but with Solar power underpinned by improved battery technology, I believe Africa will have a better fighting chance of changing the energy poverty narrative. The full irradiation across Africa will make absolute sense as we can bridge the current energy poverty of over 600mln people who do not have direct access to electricity as a base case for Africa to leapfrog into the sphere of the first worlds. I see a future where, like the rising sun, Africa will arise on the back of battery technology and Solar power.
In one of Professor John Goodenough’s last interviews, when asked what he felt about the impact his work has made to the world, John said “I am glad to have provided something for people of the world”! This statement is even more profound when you know that he himself never carried a cell phone as he says he never wanted to be disturbed and would rather preserve his peace. It is also worthy of note that John actually signed away all his rights to this life changing battery technology and he didn’t seek to make money from it – what a guy! Now, that’s what I call “Purpose”, that’s what I call impact and outright selflessness. I pray for Professor John’s soul to rest in peace and to his friends and family members, I wish to let them know that Professor John was certainly “GOOD ENOUGH”!
Rest in peace.
Engineer Chief Tony Attah (FNSE)
Aare Gbobaniyi of Owu Kingdom
Amaopusenbi of Bonny Kingdom