“Gay Marathon”. The track stretches from Pietermaritzburg, the capital of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, to the eastern seaport city of Durban. The race course is 28 miles inland, and the altitude difference is about 3,000 feet. In 1968, Mike Thackeray participated in this event for the first time. It took 10 hours and 3 minutes to complete the race, and the limit for the slowest contestant was 11 hours. He decided to run better, so he competed again. Later, it was out of control. In 1976, Thackeray participated in the “Gay Marathon” for the 14th time, ranking fourth with 6 hours and 32 minutes. Persevering, he finally got his wish.
In addition to being a marathon runner, Thackeray is also the chief inventor of NMC technology at Argonne National Laboratory. This technology is the “direct line” of the lithium cobalt oxide positive electrode developed by Professor Goodenough, and Minister Wan Gang is full of praise. Thackeray’s office is located in the main building of the battery department, two offices away from his boss Chamberlain. The long corridor of Building 205 is covered with linoleum, and the dark green brick walls give people a vaguely 1950s feel. A handwritten note was posted on the coffee machine, reminding everyone to leave 30 cents for every drink.
Two portraits are hung on the wall of Thackeray’s office. One is an engraving of 19th-century British physicist Michael Faraday created in 1861, and the other is a portrait of British astronomer William Herschel. Uranus was discovered in 1781. The two portraits are gifts that Thackeray received in South Africa when he was young. His hometown often lingers in his dreams and gives him a lot of inspiration. He often said that few people know that South Africa was one of the main birthplaces of global battery wisdom 40 years ago.
At the end of the 1870s, in Pretoria, South Africa, Thackeray had tousled blond hair and long sideburns, studying for a PhD under the guidance of crystallographer John Kozel. One day, Kozel walked into the laboratory and announced the start of a new project. They are ready to “do something in the energy field”. On October 6, 1973, the “Yompiday” war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which triggered an energy crisis. Western countries looked for alternatives to Middle Eastern oil. Kozel believes that the advancement of battery technology is a solution. He told Thackeray that this is the focus of their work. At that time, South Africa implemented the apartheid system, and some other countries in the world responded with economic sanctions, which hindered this research and development work from the very beginning. No one in other countries wants to cooperate with them. In order to avoid causing international troubles, they have to conduct research secretly and use codes to communicate. Since Kozel and Thackeray still don’t know anything about energy storage, this kind of cover seems unnecessary. However, it turns out that their fresh perspective is a big advantage. They considered the problems in this field from the side, “not affected by the way other scientists observe the world” (Saclay language), and formed a unique insight into the breakthrough results announced by Ford Motor and Stanford University-high-temperature batteries. Their early research results are the molten battery-Tebra (“Zebra”) with independent intellectual property rights in South Africa. Companies immediately invested money, and given their low starting point, this kind of achievement is indeed impressive.
After Zebra’s success, Thackeray believed that there must be room for improvement, and it would certainly be able to surpass the tremendous research results made by John Goodenough in 1980. After all, the operating temperature of Zebra and other molten batteries is 300°C, which is dangerous when used inside a car. As for Goodenough’s room temperature lithium cobalt oxide formula, it is indeed an improvement, but if it is used in electronic equipment, its cost is still too high.
There is a mineral called “spinel”, which has significant structural advantages. The supply of this mineral is abundant, so the price is low. The three-dimensional structure of spinel resembles crystal, which is very charming. Spinel itself is tough, for example, it is stronger than the layered structure of Goodenough’s lithium cobalt oxide electrode. Goodenough has always asked his laboratory assistant to let half of the lithium ions move between the positive and negative electrodes, but Thackeray wondered if all lithium ions can be inserted and extracted from the spinel cathode. If he can achieve this goal without decomposing the cathode, the cost of spinel may be lower than that of lithium cobalt oxide, and the potential power will far exceed the latter.
Thackeray is particularly interested in spinel like iron oxide. As we all know, iron oxide (iron trioxide) is the main component of rust. When people leave the bicycle outdoors in the rain for a long time, the bicycle will rust and produce iron oxide. However, for battery scientists, iron oxide is also a spinel with important properties. In South Africa, Thackeray succeeded in inserting and extracting lithium ions from iron oxide at the same high temperature as Ford Motor Researchers. He intuitively believes that iron oxide may also work at room temperature, so that it can be used for greater practical purposes.
At that time, South Africa was geographically and politically isolated. The researchers here are far away from R&D centers in the United States and Europe. Nevertheless, this country hopes that every aspiring young scientist will work abroad for about a year. Thackeray decided to use his academic vacation to test his vision of spinel, and he was working with the leading figure in the industry at the time-Goodenough.
Thackeray wrote to Oxford University. Goodenough wrote back immediately and said: He has no funds to support this young man, but if Thackeray doesn’t mind it, he would be happy to be the host. Thackeray will continue to practice abroad for a period of time with the financial support of domestic laboratories, and he does not need additional external funding. So, at the age of 31, he took his wife and daughter to England, where he worked as a postdoctoral assistant for 15 months.
Thackeray wandered around the campus of Oxford University. He looked around and remembered some stories about his father when he was in college. The Thackeray family studied at Cambridge University for generations-his father Andrew David Thackeray became a famous astronomer; his grandfather Henry St. John Thackeray was a Christian scholar who taught at the school; of course also There is William Makepis Thackeray, the famous novelist and the fourth-generation ancestor of Mike Thackeray’s father, who are brothers. Thackeray and his brother both chose to stay in South Africa to study at a university, and he felt that he was not up to the level of a British academic institution. This inferiority complex not only originated from Oxford, but also from Goodenough. Thackeray found that this elder was very wise and admirable. Gudinaf laughed a lot, Thackeray had never heard a unique roar of laughter like him. In comparison, Thackeray sees himself as an ordinary “African grassroots chemist.”
He felt that he was out of place here, and there was another reason-because his homeland was still practising the medieval political system at the time, he was sure that although the people he met in the UK didn’t say anything, they would definitely treat him and his heart. The family is a bit disgusted. However, Gudinaf did not believe that Thackeray or his family should be personally responsible for South Africa’s racial system. Thackeray has its own unique testing ground: the laboratory.
(To be continued)