More than 260 years ago, Benjamin Franklin wired together a series of lead-lined glass panes to store electrical charge. He called his contraption a battery, and he coined two related terms that also remain in use today: positive and negative.
What would he make of the early 21st century, when batteries are so lightweight and powerful that they can run pocket-size computers and wrist-mounted video screens?
The man largely responsible for that revolution is coming in April 2018 to the museum that bears Franklin’s name.
Battery pioneer John B. Goodenough, still electrifying his field at age 95, is the newest winner of the Franklin Institute’s annual award in the field of chemistry, the museum announced Tuesday. Seven other scientists are to receive awards for work in such diverse fields as genetics, computer networks, and global warming.
The elite group comes to Philadelphia for a week of lectures and outreach, culminating with a black-tie ceremony April 19. And on one morning the scientists will stand behind tables laden with hands-on exhibits, fielding questions from any museum visitors who happen to walk by.
“The opportunity to interact with these rock stars is really special,” said Karen Elinich, the institute’s director of science content.
Goodenough was a force in the budding field of electronics starting in the 1950s, when his research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped pave the way for the development of RAM — the short-term “random access memory” that enables computers to juggle tasks and retrieve data.
His best-known contribution to batteries came in 1979, while he was at the University of Oxford.
Other researchers had determined that ions of lithium, a lightweight metal, could be used to shuttle electrical charge back and forth between a battery’s positive and negative electrodes, but early versions stored limited amounts of energy.
Goodenough determined that positive electrodes made from a material called lithium cobalt oxide allowed for a significant boost in energy storage. Batteries based on that discovery led to an explosion in portable electronic devices, chief among them cellphones. Not that they have been much use to Goodenough himself.
“I don’t carry a cell telephone,” he said in an interview, laughing gleefully. “I’m the only one that doesn’t use one.”
Now an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Goodenough says he is not satisfied with the ubiquitous batteries made possible by his research. Among other shortfalls: The lithium ions travel through a liquid medium called an electrolyte, which can overheat and catch fire under certain conditions. Goodenough and UT colleague Maria Helena Braga think they can eliminate that problem with solid electrolytes made from glass, improving battery life in the process.
He also sees a big future for large-scale rechargeable batteries that would store electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels.
“We would like to help emancipate the dependence of modern society on fossil fuels,” he said.
Such ideas are a long way from Franklin, whose initial batteries were not even batteries by today’s definition. Technically, they were capacitors, a different type of charge-storing device.
Goodenough is a fitting heir to the 18th-century statesman-inventor, said battery researcher Yury Gogotsi, a professor of materials science and engineering at Drexel University.
“He really is a living legend in the field of material science,” Gogotsi said.
The other Franklin award winners include:
Philippe Horvath, Bower Award for Achievement in Science. A senior scientist at DuPont Nutrition and Health, Horvath helped pave the way for a widely used gene-editing method called CRISPR-Cas. In 2007, Horvath demonstrated the biology behind that technique, showing that bacteria could borrow genetic sequences from viruses to boost their immune systems.
Vinton Gray Cerf and Robert E. Kahn, computer and cognitive science. The pair are being recognized for their development of TCP/IP, the set of rules that govern communication between computers via the internet. Cerf is now at Google, while Kahn is chief executive officer of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that promotes research on communications infrastructure.
Susan Trumbore, earth and environmental science. A geochemist at the University of California, Irvine, and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, Trumbore measures the levels of carbon in plants and soil. She is among the pioneers of this technique, an important tool in understanding the role of greenhouse-gas emissions in climate change.
Manijeh Razeghi, electrical engineering. A professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University, Razeghi is being honored for developing high-power lasers that could be used for wireless communication, detection of explosives and chemical weapons, and medical imaging.
Adrian Bejan, mechanical engineering. Bejan is being honored by the Franklin Institute for his work in the fields of thermodynamics and “convection heat transfer.” A professor at Duke University, he is known for applying science beyond its traditional boundaries, this year publishing research that explored how the laws of physics relate to wealth inequality.
Helen Rhoda Quinn, physics. A professor emerita at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University, Quinn is being recognized for her study of interactions between subatomic particles. She also is acclaimed for her role in developing rigorous standards for the teaching of science at the elementary and high school levels.
The Franklin Institute has bestowed its awards in various forms since 1824, recognizing such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Jane Goodall. Many have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, most recently this year. Columbia University professor Joachim Frank is among this year’s winners of the Nobel in chemistry, and he won a Franklin Institute award in 2014.
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