After the energy crisis broke out in the 1970s, the price of oil gradually dropped from a high level, and the urgency of battery research also disappeared. Exxon abandoned the power storage project and authorized Stan Wittingham’s lithium battery patent. Former US President Ronald Reagan cancelled energy projects that had been receiving government funding for the past 10 years, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also took the same measures.
The situation in Japan is different. After Exxon used Wittingham lithium batteries in watches in 1977, researchers continued to design larger electronic products. Wittingham’s lithium battery uses pure lithium metal as the positive electrode, so it is easy to catch fire. However, after 10 years of research, Japanese researcher Akira Yoshino succeeded in combining Goodenough’s lithium cobalt oxide negative electrode with a carbon positive electrode. In 1991, Sony used Akira Yoshino’s research results to launch a lithium-ion battery dedicated to small electronic devices. Sony’s subsequent version of the lithium-ion battery uses benign graphene to make a better-performing positive electrode, because the absorption layer of this graphene provides a perfect temporary “habitat” for lithium ions. However, after the combination of Goodenough’s negative electrode and carbon positive electrode or graphene positive electrode, a breakthrough was achieved as a whole, creating a product that became popular overnight. The annual output value of small recording equipment and other electronic products related industries reaches several billion U.S. dollars. Imitation lithium-ion batteries are beginning to appear all over the world, and many laboratories are also vying to find a better lithium-ion combination to reduce the size of the battery and store more energy.
Although Goodenough played a central role in the birth of the first lithium-ion battery, he did not receive any royalties. If Thackeray’s spinel invention produced commercial value, his laboratory in South Africa could also profit from it. Oxford University refused to apply for a patent for Goodenough’s negative electrode, because the university seemed to feel that there was no benefit in owning intellectual property. In the end, Goodenough felt that at least he had to bring his invention to the market, so he granted the right to use the invention to the British Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERE). This laboratory belongs to the British government and is located in Harwell, south of Oxford. He never imagined the future market size. In this regard, no one has made a prediction.
This is not the first time that American battery inventors have encountered commercial failures. In the mid-1980s, Union Carbide controlled a third of the global battery market through its Eveready and Energizer brands. However, in 1984, a cyanide leak occurred in a chemical plant of Union Carbide in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, and thousands of people were poisoned and killed. Since then, the company will sell its main business units for cash. Among them, the battery department was sold to Rosen Purina. Later, the company believed that the unit profit margin of the battery was too low, so it transferred its lithium-ion business to a Japanese company. The nickel metal hydride battery (MH-Ni, referred to as “nickel metal hydride battery”) used by Toyota Motor Corporation (Toyota Motor), the leading brand in the electric vehicle market, was also born in the United States. Its inventor was a Detroit city. A man named Stan Ovshinsky. In 1997, after Toyota released the world’s first major hybrid vehicle, the Prius, the patent license fee for this battery went to a subsidiary of Chevron that acquired Ofsinski’s patent. However, Chevron has transferred most of its profits to other Japanese companies such as Panasonic and Toyota that produce final products.
American companies lack the vision, courage, or patience of their Japanese counterparts, or none of the three. Students studying economic history laughed at Japan’s rapid rise in the 1980s. They said that Japan’s success is just a flash in the county, and the current panic about the country’s rise reflects the sense of crisis in the West. It does not mean that Japan will dominate in the future. However, this statement is not entirely correct. The Japanese took Thomas Edison as a model. This remarkable inventor is highly regarded in the United States, but he is rarely an effective imitator. Edison did not have any guiding theories for creating new inventions, but he systematically tried various ideas in order to find solutions. Then, South Korea and China also learned from Edison’s method, each occupying an important position in the global electronic product market. On the whole, these three countries have added to the field of energy storage in the United States during the 40-year industrial decline. Therefore, the United States is more eager to join this new battery and electric vehicle race, hoping to occupy a dominant position in the expanding related industries in the future.
There are liars and traffickers everywhere in the field of invention, because no one knows where the next outlet will appear. In the field of battery invention, some people especially like to exaggerate and even deceive: people know the importance of high-quality batteries in their hearts and believe that there should be better batteries in the world, so they are more likely to be deceived. In 1883, Edison was frequently frustrated while building his own electronic empire, so he thought that rechargeable batteries were just a legend. He wrote:
In my opinion, energy storage batteries are a gimmick, a sensation, and a means for listed companies to deceive the public. Energy storage batteries can make people think. It is the perfect trick that stock market crooks can’t wait for… When they see someone start developing battery packs, these crooks quickly resorted to all their abilities to lie and deceive.
Gudinaf told the story of a Japanese materials scientist named Okada Shigeto. In 1993, Shigeto Okada went to the University of Texas. The year before, Goodenough left Oxford University to work at this university. Shigeto Okada is from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT). The company is a giant in the Japanese telecommunications industry. It applied to the University of Texas for Okada Shigeto to join Goodenough’s team, and Okada’s expenses were paid by the company. After signing a general confidentiality agreement, Goodenough agreed. He arranged for Okada to sit next to the Indian postdoc Akasaya Patty.
With the support of these researchers, Gudinaf joined a peculiar circle of materials scientists who combined the intuition of physics, the meticulousness of chemistry, and the pragmatism of engineering. Their goal is to build a new order for the existing components.
Patty and Okada began to test various spinel formulations. The spinel formulation they were looking for surpassed Thackeray’s manganese spinel in terms of energy storage and surpassed Gudinaf himself in terms of safety performance. Of lithium cobalt oxide materials. First, they replace different metals one by one to check if any metal reaches the goal of the instructor. They have tried cobalt, manganese, and vanadium, but none of these three metals are suitable. In the end, they condensed the list to a combination of iron and phosphorus.
Gudinaf was skeptical. He said, “Patty, you can’t find a spinel structure like this.”
Then, the old man went to his summer vacation.
Just like Thackeray’s situation at Oxford University a few years ago, Goodenough got news when he returned to school. Patty said: “The professor is right, I did not find the spinel structure.” However, he created a silicate mineral crystal, namely olivine. He inserted and extracted lithium ions into this crystal structure smoothly. Gudinaf found that this result was very encouraging after inspection. The combination of lithium and iron phosphorus met all his expectations.
It was not until later that Goodenough learned that the Japanese researcher Okada Shigeto had disclosed Patty’s discovery to his Japanese employer, and the company immediately began to secretly develop the formula. In November 1995, NTT used Patty’s research method to quietly apply for a patent, and then began lobbying Japanese electronic equipment manufacturers to test whether they were interested in the new type of lithium iron phosphate batteries.
It wasn’t until the following year that Goodenough discovered Okada’s tricks. He didn’t believe it at first. He almost yelled to his postdoc: “Patty, he’s a spy, my goodness. Wake up, you have to write something in your notebook.” He meant that Patty should record scientific research results. In his laboratory notebook; if an intellectual property dispute occurs, this record will play a key role. And the possibility of such disputes is very high.
Patty said to Goodenough, “I’m sorry, he is my friend.”
Subsequently, a battle for intellectual property rights kicked off. Japanese and Americans rushed to publish papers and apply for patents. The University of Texas represented Goodenough’s laboratory against NTT in a $500 million lawsuit.
The situation continues to deteriorate. Professor Yeming Jiang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began to speculate on Gudinaf’s ideas, and then applied for his own patent. Professor Jiang claimed that he made another new type of material through improvement, and based on this, founded a company in Massachusetts, which is A123. He advertised that he would sell a power tool that could eventually be used in a machine. Lithium iron phosphate material for motor cars. Gudinaf was forced to enter another battlefield for legal rights protection because Professor Jiang’s company continued to persuade a special European court to revoke the old man’s patent. In 2008, the court did so.
As a result, Goodenough’s patent became a “free meal”, so that by the end of 2008, the situation developed to a climax: Warren Buffett spent 230 million US dollars to buy 10% of BYD’s shares. Not long ago, the Chinese car manufacturer released a new electric car powered by a lithium iron phosphate battery. No one mentioned the source of BYD’s batteries. However, after Professor Jiang took legal action, the battery industry generally believes that the invention of the Goodenough laboratory may “bloom and bear fruit” anywhere.
In 2009, A123 completed its initial public offering (IPO). Professor Jiang’s charm, MIT’s reputation and the development trend of the times created a dazzling halo for him. A123’s stock price rose by 50% on the day of its debut. Professor Jiang’s company raised $587 million in funding, making it the largest IPO that year. He himself and all related personnel have received generous rewards. Goodenough was ruled out again.
Finally, the University of Texas and NTT reached a settlement. NTT paid $30 million to the university. In addition, any profit the company obtains from its Japanese patents must be distributed to the school, which is tantamount to admitting that Gudinaf’s invention has been infringed. But Gudinaf did not get any gains from A123. He thinks this result is unfair. Attorneys hired by the University of Texas can only brag and are helpless to deal with cunning and treacherous objects. As for this university, Gudinaf said it lacked the courage to “fight”.