A Fight for Power: The History of Batteries

Batteries come in various sizes, shapes, and types, from the tiny batteries inside hearing aids to massive ones connected to the grid. Batteries are designed and used for a dizzying array of tasks! With this amount of variety, even choosing the right batteries at the store can be confusing!

Batteries come in a variety of shapes and sizes
Batteries come in a variety of shapes and sizes, Credit: Wikimedia/John Seb Barber

Table of Contents

What is a battery?

While people might use the words “battery” and “cell” interchangeably, each has its own definition.

 

Most simply, a cell is a device that stores chemical energy and releases it as electricity.

 

When a bunch of cells are stacked together, they form a battery. A single cell can be a battery, if it is the only cell in the stack.

The cross section of a car battery shows how it is made up of a collection of individual cells
The cross section of a car battery shows how it is made up of a collection of individual cells, Credit: Wikimedia/User:Ben Cossalter

How does a battery work?

Batteries have metals at their positive and negative terminals. These metals are called electrodes. The electrode on the positive end of the cell has the ability to yank away electrons from the other. This electrode wins in the electron tug-of-war when the circuit is closed, and electrons flow through the conductor. This flow of electrons is an electrical current.

 

But wait! This is not yet a battery! The metals also have to be immersed in a substance known as an electrolyte to complete the assembly of the battery. As electrons move from one terminal to another in the external part of the circuit, ionsparticles that balance the charges of the moving electrons—move inside the cell. These ions need a substance through which they can move, which happens to be the electrolyte solution.

A simple diagram of a galvanic cell. The cathode (the positive electrode) pulls electrons from the anode (the negative electrode). Ions move through the electrolyte
A simple diagram of a galvanic cell. The cathode (the positive electrode) pulls electrons from the anode (the negative electrode). Ions move through the electrolyte, Credit: Wikimedia/the UC Davis Library

The past

Cells and batteries have been around for a long time. Archaeological finds from Baghdad discovered a clay jar containing a copper cylinder and an iron rod. The jar also was found to have traces of an electrolytic substance that might have been vinegar or wine. The Baghdad Battery, as it is called, might indicate that batteries existed as far back as 250 AD! The jury is still out, with many scientists doubtful of the jars’ true purpose.

An illustration of the components of the Baghdad battery
An illustration of the components of the Baghdad battery, Credit: Wikipedia/Ironie

It was not until 1749 that Benjamin Franklin coined the term “battery” during his experiments on electricity. The term “battery” came from the word for an array of military weapons that were used all together. The name stuck, and was used to describe groups of cells that were combined to supply current.

 

The invention of the first “true” battery happened because of two men and a few frogs. Luigi Galvani found that when he was dissecting a frog with an iron scalpel and a hook made of brass, the legs of the frog twitched. Galvani believed that this movement was caused by “animal electricity.”

 

Alessandro Volta, however, was not convinced. Volta found that the frog legs did twitch because of electricity. But, as he had thought, this current came from the use of the two different metals. The tissues in the frog’s leg acted as an electrolyte. In testing his theory, Volta created the first battery in 1800. He used alternating discs of zinc and copper, separated by paper drenched in brine, to create a voltaic pile. Batteries are still referred to as “pila” in Italian and “la pile” in French because of his invention!

Volta displaying his invention to Napoleon Bonaparte
Volta displaying his invention to Napoleon Bonaparte, Credit: Wikimedia/Le Petit Journal

Voltaic cells did not output enough energy to be of much use. It was only after the Daniell cell was invented in 1836 that batteries became a useful source of energy. Invented by John Frederic Daniell, these cells used a different chemistry than voltaic piles. This allowed them to store more energy than Volta’s battery. Daniell cells were used to power telephone and telegraph systems, and even doorbells, for nearly a century!!

 

All the batteries created so far were derived from primary cells. Their electrodes and the electrolytes would have to be replaced after the batteries were used fully. But 1859 gave rise to another innovation. Lead acid batteries were the first secondary cell batteries. Once all the energy in the battery was used, the chemical reaction inside the battery could be reversed using electricity. The battery could be used over and over again! Lead acid batteries made electric vehicles a reality. The first electric vehicle followed shortly after the battery’s invention. We still use lead acid batteries today! They are most commonly used as the batteries in vehicles and in backup systems in homes.

The present

The design of batteries continued to be refined to make them more portable and more efficient. The first commercially available dry cell was created in the United States in 1898. This battery was created by the National Carbon Company—the brand that you might know now as Energizer!

 

The same company developed the first portable alkaline battery nearly 50 years later. Alkaline batteries are the batteries that are most commonly used around the household. These are non-rechargeable batteries of the kind that we find in remote controls and flashlights. These batteries lasted five to eight times longer than other types, and were much smaller and lighter!

 

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, invented in the 1980s, changed the world, in a manner of speaking. Li-ion batteries are light, rechargeable, and can output large amounts of energy. Furthermore, these batteries are not plagued by the problems, such as slow charge times, that older batteries had. John Goodenough’s creation now powers everything from phones and laptops to medical devices and electric vehicles. His invention had such a profound effect that it earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019!

The Lithium-ion battery pack in an electric car (the silver stacks seen towards the bottom of the image)
The Lithium-ion battery pack in an electric car (the silver stacks seen towards the bottom of the image), Credit: Wikimedia/Tennen-Gas

The role that batteries play in our lives will only increase as we speed towards a renewable-energy future. Energy from renewable sources is not readily available at hand. This means that some of it has to be captured for use later. For example, the energy that a solar panel generates during the day has to be stored for use at night. How would this energy be stored? Batteries are a likely candidate. The idea of storing enough energy to power the grid is currently being explored.

 

Batteries store a lot less energy than fossil fuels. A tank of gasoline can hold about 100 times the energy of a lithium-ion battery of the same size. This is one major reason why we are still so heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

 

Lithium and cobalt are rare metals. And the ever-increasing demand for these metals for use in batteries is placing a lot of strain on the environment. Lithium and cobalt mines are barely able to keep up with current needs. The supply of cobalt, even with the use of recycled metal, is expected to run out by 2030.

 

Lithium and cobalt mines are also extremely harmful to the miners working in them. It’s a dangerous job that involves miners going into narrow chambers with little in terms of safety equipment to extract ores. The miners and locals are also often exploited, being made to work for barely any pay. Congo, the world’s leading cobalt producer, is stuck in a tight spot. Do they sacrifice their environment and people to sell cobalt? Or should they give up on one of their most important exports?

A lithium mine in Chile
A lithium mine in Chile, Credit: peoplesdispatch.org

Batteries of the future will be able to hold vastly greater amounts of energy than today’s versions. They will also be a lot more environmentally friendly to produce. Scientists are already looking into newer technologies that might lead to a breakthrough. Who knows what new kinds of batteries might be waiting around the corner!

Glossary

Terminals: The points where an electrical circuit is connected to the battery

 

Electrodes: The metals that are used inside a battery that donate or pull electrons

 

Conductor: A material that allows electricity to flow through it

 

Current: The flow of electrons over a certain period of time. This word is sometimes used interchangeably with “electricity.”

 

Ion: An atom or molecule that has a net charge because it has gained or lost electrons

 

Electrolyte: A liquid or gel-like substance through which ions move in a battery

 

Primary cells: Cells that release electrical energy and cannot be recharged once depleted (for example, cells in non-rechargeable AA alkaline batteries)

 

Secondary cell: Rechargeable cells (for example, cells in phone batteries)

Flesch Kincaid Reading Grade: 8.5

 

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 57.4

The History and development of batteries – Phys.org

https://phys.org/news/2015-04-history-batteries.html

 

How a battery works – Australian academy of science

https://www.science.org.au/curious/technology-future/batteries

 

How Batteries work – How stuff works

https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/everyday-tech/battery1.htm

 

History and timeline of the battery

https://www.thoughtco.com/battery-timeline-1991340

 

The voltaic pile – MIT libraries

https://libraries.mit.edu/collections/vail-collection/topics/electricity/the-voltaic-pile/

 

Invention of the Leyden Jar – Encyclopedia Britannica

https://www.britannica.com/science/electromagnetism/Invention-of-the-Leyden-jar

 

Understanding Batteries – Ronald Dell, David Anthony, James Rand

https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-VJg6gLmy2UC&oi=fnd&pg=PR15&dq=the+history+of+batteries&ots=sNfZjRskM7&sig=0isHbeKlxfGi7FXc1YObJfHed0M&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

 

In Boost for Renewables, Grid-Scale Battery Storage Is on the Rise – Yale environment

https://e360.yale.edu/features/in-boost-for-renewables-grid-scale-battery-storage-is-on-the-risehttps://e360.yale.edu/features/in-boost-for-renewables-grid-scale-battery-storage-is-on-the-rise

 

 

Baghdad Batteries – Discovery

https://www.discoveryuk.com/mysteries/the-mystery-of-the-baghdad-battery/

 

 

What batteries will power the future – Forbes

https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2021/02/11/what-batteries-will-power-the-future/?sh=12e0958741c0

 

https://www.electrochem.org/the-future-of-batteries/

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Author

  • Pradyumna Rajashekar

    Pradyumna is a Biology undergraduate, with a taste for Ecology and Wildlife Biology. He has an appetite for understanding biological systems, and sharing the excitement of discovery through writing When he's not reading papers on his laptop, he's out mountain biking, bird watching and travelling the countryside. His other passions include drumming, photography and tinkering with vintage gizmos. Writing for Smore allows him to combine his fascination for the natural world with his passion for popular science communication.