There’s No Age Limit for Innovation

Odds are you’re reading this post on a device powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Those batteries were largely invented by Dr. John Goodenough, currently a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Goodenough, like others in the field of energy storage, realized that Li-ion batteries were an enormous improvement over previous battery technologies like lead-acid, but he also realized they weren’t, ahem, good enough. So, like any scientific researcher worth the title, he kept working to make them nonflammable, cheaper, and longer-lasting.

At the end of February, UT Austin announced that a team led by Goodenough had developed the long-hoped-for breakthrough for battery storage: “the first all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage.”

Other academic and corporate research teams, including some that have received grant money from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects-Energy (ARPA-E) program, are also working on solid-state batteries, and I’m not certifying that the UT team is actually the first to develop a solid-state battery cell. Nevertheless, two observations are worth making about this announcement, aside from the technology achievement.

To Create Something Different, You May Need to Include Someone Different

One is that the individual credited as the key collaborator on Professor Goodenough’s breakthrough is a senior research fellow in the engineering school, Dr. Maria Helena Braga. It may be chance that the researcher to share public honors for the development of this new achievement is a woman (she’s listed as the lead author on the academic article about the work in Energy & Environmental Science), but it’s one more data point validating the frequent finding that teams including persons of diverse backgrounds tend to be more successful than more homogeneous teams. (For an example from the past that’s recently been publicized in popular culture via the movie Hidden Figures, consider the invaluable contribution of female African-American “computers” to NASA’s manned space missions.)

Dr. Maria Helena Braga. Source: University of Texas at Austin

 

The UT Austin researchers’ new approach offers multiple advantages for the growing (I was going to say “exploding”) battery industry. Not only does the team’s replacement of liquid electrolytes with glass electrolytes remove the potential for explosions and fires in battery-powered devices, but it also enables a collection of other coveted characteristics for next-generation batteries: increased cycling/longer life, faster charging, lower cost, lower operating temperature, and the use of environmentally friendly materials. (Braga is quoted as saying, “The glass electrolytes allow for the substitution of low-cost sodium for lithium. Sodium is extracted from seawater that is widely available.”) Those last two traits alone—a greatly expanded temperature range and low-cost, “clean” materials—are game-changers.

The second observation is that Dr. Goodenough isn’t your typical lead researcher on a project like this. You see, he’s 94. At an age when most of his contemporaries are pushing up daisies, this professor, who holds a PhD in physics, has just been recognized for his contribution to what is poised to be the breakthrough energy storage material development for perhaps the next decade.

Dr. John Goodenough. Source: University of Texas at Austin

Those Over 30 Need Not Apply

The timing of this announcement struck me because the very same day as UT Austin posted the news of Dr. Goodenough and Dr. Braga’s achievement—February 28—Dr. Saul Griffith, cofounder and CEO of Otherlab, was speaking at the annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. Griffith is an enthusiastic speaker and passionate energy nerd, but the way he closed his remarks at the summit took me aback because of its implied ageism.

After a fast-paced presentation that ranged from a history of government reports on clean energy, to energy usage and waste data, to the energy startups with which he has been affiliated, Griffith concluded by saying (I’m paraphrasing), “If you’re under 30, send us an application. If you’re over 30, help fund these projects and researchers.”

My opinion of Griffith immediately plummeted—and not just because I’m over 30. It may be that he was just preaching to the choir, aware that his audience included a high percentage of under-30 students. That’s fine if that was the case, but I suspect Griffith may be hobbling his chances of success by putting only—or predominantly—young folks in his start-up baskets. (Though Griffith has been involved with multiple intriguing ideas, he seems more interested in the ideas than in their commercial deployment. The project for which he is most well-known, especially in the energy space—Makani Power’s high-altitude wind harvesting kite—does not yet appear to have been commercially deployed. After gaining a $4 million ARPA-E grant for the project, Griffith sold Makani Power, founded in 2006, to Google in 2013.)

I’m not suggesting that all nonagenarians are capable of contributing to landmark scientific or engineering discoveries. Clearly, Dr. Goodenough is one of those exceptional individuals who maintain a passion for their field of interest long after what corporate America and the Social Security Administration consider to be retirement age. Furthermore, there are plenty of twenty-somethings who will never, at any age, possess the technical or creative abilities to contribute transformative ideas in any field.

What I am suggesting is that we all exercise caution before automatically disqualifying an individual simply for demographic reasons. In that spirit, I won’t hold it against the under-30 crowd that someone old enough to be their great grandfather beat them to this innovation prize. But seriously, who knows how long it would have taken for this battery tech breakthrough had Dr. Goodenough been forced to retire and leave his office in any of the past four decades? (He did leave Oxford University just before that institution’s retirement policy would have forced him out.)

As for Goodenough, he’ll have the last laugh. Turns out he’s been fighting ageism since he started his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, when a professor told him, “I don’t understand you veterans. . . . Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics had already done it by the time he was your age; and you want to begin?” Ha!

Gail Reitenbach, PhD (follow her on Twitter @GailReit) is a communicator, creator, and hiker who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. She is the former editor of POWER and the current editor and publisher at Right Hand Communications LLC (righthandcom.com).

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