Batteries and Electricity: a brief history

July 18, 2022                                                                                                                                                         Home

Automobile battery

Batteries are everywhere these days:  flashlights, cell phones, weed eaters, cordless drills, lawn mowers, and, of course, our car batteries.  Now, vehicles, pickup trucks, and school buses are completely battery powered.  These all need to be re-charged at some point by connecting to an electrical output.  Let’s step back and look at a bit of history.

A few thousand years ago the ancient Greeks realized that they could create an electric charge by rubbing amber and touching it to a material like wool.  The word “electricity” is derived from the Greek word “electra” for amber. Many of us have felt this static electricity as a slight shock, when we touch a metal doorknob or car door handle.  

Leyden Jar

In 1749 Ben Franklin (who coined the term “battery” for electrical use) constructed a device based on the Leyden jar, which had been invented a few years earlier in Europe. He linked several of these jars together to make a stronger discharge of power. In the early 1800s several scientists created batteries that could generate even more power for a longer period of time.

The question became how to take this charge and use the energy for a specific and reliable purpose.  In 1836 a British chemist named John Daniell created the first practical electric cell, which was used in electrical telegraph networks.  

Time went by, and the technology improved.  All the first batteries were wet cells, which could leak and spill.  By 1900 the dry cell battery came into use.  In this battery the liquid (usually copper sulfate) was replaced with a paste.  This made it much easier to transport and use batteries.  Most auto batteries are lead-acid wet cell batteries, though there is an increasing use of absorbed glass mat and lithium-ion batteries in vehicles.

Rechargeable batteries

We rely upon batteries for more and more of the items we use.  With the development of rechargeable batteries, we no longer have to add so many batteries to the waste stream.  This is important, as batteries that end up in landfills will decay and leak.  As this happens, the chemicals in the battery enter the soil and contaminate groundwater.

As an indicator of the future, the world’s largest battery-based energy storage system is located in Victoria, Australia.  The is a Megapack storage system and has the capacity to power more than 650,000 homes for an hour. The system provides 20% of its power on a regular basis, and reserves 80% for times when the power supply is under stress.  A smaller Megapack unit in South Australia saved the National Electricity Market close to $40 million in its first year of operation (2019).  Smaller units are in use in the USA. 

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