Batteries: The Unsung Hero of the Digital Era


You’re probably reading this on your cell phone or tablet after a hard day’s work on your laptop. Hard to imagine that these commonplace activities only became possible about 30 years ago thanks to a revolution in battery technology. Today’s batteries give us the power to communicate with people anywhere at any time, allowing us to take our work and our relationships with us wherever we go. They also power today’s electric vehicles. Batteries really are the unsung hero of the digital age.

But batteries have existed long before then, in many earlier forms. They’ve been a key part of mass transportation for a century – internal combustion cars rely on them, so do airplanes. We take for granted common household items like flashlights, watches, power-tools, and children’s toys, thanks to the battery’s ability to deliver reliable and safe energy in compact form.

Other power sources produce more raw energy, but batteries give us freedom. And it all started 270 years ago.


Call it a ‘battery of…’

“Battery” originally meant a group of objects working together, as in an artillery battery. That’s the image Benjamin Franklin envisioned in 1749 when, during his early experiments with electricity, he attached glass capacitors together to increase the electrical discharge. He called his stack of cells a battery and the name stuck.


Early sparks

The first practical battery was invented in 1800 by Alessandro Volta. His “Voltaic Pile” consisted of zinc and copper plates separated by cloth or cardboard and soaked in liquid electrolytes – the first wet-cell battery. Volta’s name has become synonymous with the measurement of electric potential – “Volts”.

Volta’s battery had limited strength and charge, and once used up was discarded. It also leaked and formed hydrogen bubbles on the copper. The Voltaic Pile was messy, toxic, and unstable, but 19th century inventors took note.

The next half century of battery progress consisted of incremental problem-solving.
Multiple inventors improved on Volta’s archetype. Leakage was solved, corrosion halted, conductivity improved, internal resistance reduced.


Re-charge and re-cycle

One of the most important breakthroughs in energy history occurred in 1859 when Gaston Planté of France invented the lead-acid battery. Lead-acid batteries produce a large current and are still used today in traditional car batteries. But Planté’s main contribution was that his batteries were rechargeable. For the first time, a battery could be reused, setting the stage for the first wave of early electric vehicles. In the latter half of the 19th century, battery-powered taxis became popular in New York and London and private citizens were able to purchase their own electric carriages. However the range of these vehicles was limited and there were few places to charge them, since the electric power grid was still sparse.

At the turn of the 20th century, the invention of alkaline electrolyte batteries opened the door to commercial applications like portable power tools, photography equipment, flashlights, and emergency lighting. In the 1960s, the household battery came into vogue with the alkaline battery, invented in the late 1950s by Canadian, Lewis Urry. An alkaline battery provides between three to five times the capacity of an acid battery, making it small and light enough for everyday gadgets and toys.


To Lithium-Ion… and beyond

In the 1970s, the energy crisis resulted in soaring gas prices, generating an urgency to find alternative means of transportation to wean us off fossil fuels. Electric vehicles were thrust back in the spotlight. However, attempts at getting them highway- and market-ready were limited by their sluggish lead-acid battery. Despite many incremental improvements over the years, batteries had failed to produce a significant jump in power and charging capacity. Electric vehicles continued to run on old technology, making them unable to keep up with the new demand. The battery of that era could go no faster or further.

Early research on lithium-ion batteries had begun earlier in the decade, and in 1985 Akira Yoshino developed a prototype. Its high cell voltage and low cost represented a breakthrough, and a commercial lithium-ion battery was developed by Sony and Asahi Kasei in 1991.

Thanks to its lightweight, high energy density, lithium-ion batteries were the perfect power source for a new wave of handheld devices. Mobile phones, digital cameras, camcorders, and game consoles exploded onto the market in the 1990s, followed by laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

In 2004, an upstart manufacturer called Tesla utilized lithium-ion batteries in its flagship Roadster model, which hit the California showrooms in 2008. The Roadster was the first highway-eligible electric vehicle and the pioneer for today’s new wave of EVs.

And, as they say, the rest is future history…

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