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Batteries - Believe it or Not

July 11, 2017

Batteries – believe it or not – two incredible centuries!





Madame Tussaud created her first waxwork, Voltaire, in 1777 before any of the gentlemen shown above had invented their historical Energy Storage device. Today we have Madam Tussaud’s in 24 cities around the World, hosting over thousands of wax figures. Anderson Cooper, Paris Hilton, Chewbacca, ET and Captain America all get a statue but none of Super heroes shown above. How many can you name? Can you match each of them with their invented battery or Electrochemical accomplishment? Full marks in this test if you can, with a bonus if you can name the country where they were born. Answers follow this brief tribute to two hundred years of battery invention and innovation.


Battery History – a tribute.


What would the World look like if batteries had never been invented? Can you imagine a World where there was no portable electricity and everything had to be powered with electrical cords or wires? Kids toys would be a nightmare. Fighting for sockets in a meeting would be mayhem. Implants, hearing aids, submarines and tablets may never have seen commercialization. Thank you, Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta for inventing batteries for us in 1799. In addition to being recognized for inventing the first battery he should also get the award for the most beautiful name!


The 19th Century


The 1800’s saw some significant battery inventions and our World has benefitted from them in ways it is impossible to count. Grove invented the Fuel cell in 1842 but it was Planté  in 1859, Leclanché in 1866 and Jungner in 1899 rounding out the century. These three invented Lead Acid, Zinc Carbon and Nickel Cadmium respectively. The first such an enabler for the automotive industry. Can you imagine if we had to hand crank cars today to get them started? Zinc Carbon, the critical Energy component technology that led to flashlights, radios and early battery operated toys and finally Nickel Cadmium, the rechargeable mate to Zinc Carbon and stalwart small cylindrical rechargeable power source for almost a century.


The 20th Century – the first 50 years


With this stable of battery solutions entering the 20th century, things were relatively quiet on the big invention front for the first 50 years of the century. Jungner had also invented Nickel Iron in 1899 and Thomas Edison obtaining the US patent in 1901, spent the next 20 years or so attempting to make it a success. In the early 1900’s there were more electric vehicles on the roads than ICE and Edison’s electric cars the, “Detroit Electric” and “Baker Electric” boasted a range of 80 miles as standard with over 200 miles being recorded in one instance. Wow! Unfortunately, Edison was up against cheap gas and the more powerful Lead Acid chemistry won the day when a battery was chosen for SLI. Nickel Iron was reduced to niche applications like mines that couldn’t use gasoline.




The 20th Century – the second 50 years


So, the first 50 years of the 1900’s was relatively quiet but over the next 30 years there was a flurry of electrochemical device innovation and the World today in 2017 is so different as a result.


1.  Alkaline Manganese


Karl Kordesch, the Father of Alkaline, along with two colleagues patented the first Alkaline Manganese Cell in 1957. Zinc Carbon was woeful in any device that had an electrical motor, and the commercial launch of Duracell by P.R Mallory in the 1970’s leveraged Alkaline’s vastly superior performance in any and all motorized devices. The powering of Walkmans, CD players, countless annoying toys, including pink bunnies and longer life for all devices versus Zinc carbon guaranteed the growth not just of alkaline but battery operated devices themselves.



2.  Supercapacitors


Much of the foundational work for Supercapacitors was carried out by Conway and his team between 1975 and 1980 and it was he who coined the term Supercapacitor in 1999. For many years Supercapacitors were yet another electrochemical technology that was really cool but didn’t really have any obvious application. This situation has changed over the past 15 years and now approaching a billion dollar market this is a product that is enjoying some meaningful albeit niche markets.



3.  Nickel Metal Hydride


Nickel Cadmium was a wonderful battery chemistry. Easy to charge, very high power and delivering confidently over 1000 cycles. It had of course one excruciating Achilles heel. The toxicity of the Cadmium! Enter Nickel Metal Hydride in 1980 the date that Ovonics was started by Stanford Ovshinsky to commercialize his invention of Nickel Metal Hydride. First products hit the market in 1987 and Nickel Metal Hydride was quickly in poll position as the Energy Storage system of choice for consumer electronics, cell phones and portable computers. Unfortunately, even as NiMH started its run, a dragon was hatching!


4.  Lithium Ion


John Goodenough along with several colleagues published his findings on the characteristics of Lithium Cobalt Oxide cathodes in 1980, but it was Sony, the electronics and Tape media giant who boldly took the step to launch Lithium Ion in 1991. The 18650, 3.7V and at that time 1.0Ah. It quickly pushed Nickel Metal hydride out of the way and despite safety concerns became the battery of choice in any, and all applications that had any weight consideration. Today there are billions of 1850 cells made every year along with a small number of other cell sizes. Lithium Ion is the powerhouse behind all of Apple products, the Energy Storage system in Tesla’s revolutionary automobiles and today is over $40 billion in sales.




This tribute should really be a book rather than just a few pages but I hope I have done the subject justice within the limited time available.  There is one great scientist, shown in the photo smorgas board shown up front. Michael Faraday! Faraday was famous for many things, probably in fact most notably for his laws describing Electromagnetism but as a pioneering Electrochemist his contribution to the fundamental science that underpins battery technology has to be recognized and not just because he is a Brit!


Faraday’s laws of electrolysis, in chemistry, quantitative laws used to express magnitudes of electrolytic effects, first described by the English scientist Michael Faraday in 1833. The laws state that (1) the amount of chemical change produced by current at an electrode-electrolyte boundary is proportional to the quantity of electricity used, and (2) the amounts of chemical changes produced by the same quantity of electricity in different substances are proportional to their equivalent weights. (Reproduced from Britannica)


To put this in simple layman’s terms, “you get out what you put in.” This simple truth is so essential yet at times so difficult to grasp. When you charge a battery where do all the coulombs go? When the battery is discharged do you get out all of the Coulombs you put in? Anything less and the round trip efficiency (RTE) will not be 100%. Anything more and you have created energy from nothing! I am increasingly amazed that so many technical people do not get this, even battery technologists!


So, from Volta to Goodenough we have seen some amazing battery discoveries, inventions and products. Lithium Ion is almost an exhibition on its own and Lead Acid, now over 150 years old, still has some secrets to reveal. How will nano-technology, systems management and cracking the “Holy Grails” of the battery world affect us in the future. No one can say for certain but it is sure to be a fascinating journey! 




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