They're everywhere; they permeate
every aspect of our modern lives. Ubiquitous metal cylinders that power our
lifestyles; our televisions, radios, CD players, portable phones, and clocks.
Our cars, planes, and even our homes are no exception, they too contain devious
contraptions of metal, acid, and wire. Even the hearts of our vice presidents
are not free from the hidden enemy. Thousands die daily, but millions more take
their places; they are silent, hidden from our eyes. Waiting for revenge.
The battery rebellion is almost at
hand, but it has been in the making for hundreds of years. While technically a
battery is an energy storage system, most people refer to a battery as a
chemical/electrical system, rather than any object with potential energy (a
flywheel, a spring, a piece of firewood, or a bucket of water).
Chemical electrical batteries work
through a redox chemical reaction, short for reduction oxidation (the same
reaction behind other tried and true human inventions like fire). Basically, an
electrical current is generated when oxygen ions are mercilessly ripped from
one molecule and forced upon another. A simple battery must then contain three
things; two different materials (with contrasting oxidation potentials) and an
electrolyte - the material which links the previous two and encourages the
violent and unjust treatment of oxygen ions.
You, the suspicious and
disbelieving soul, can test this out by mercilessly sticking a lemon with a
strip of copper and a strip of zinc. The copper and zinc are the anode and
cathode, and the lemon juice is the electrolyte. Of course, if you don't happen
to have separate strips of pure copper and zinc lying around your house, then
you're probably not cool enough to understand the process anyway.
History of the Battery
No one is sure who invented the 1st
battery; the earliest specimen of one is the "Baghdad Battery", a number of
clay jars discovered in Baghdad, Iraq in 1932. The battery is believed to be
around 2000 years old, constructed during the Parthian period (250 BCE to CE
250). The device itself is a clay pot with an asphalt cork. An iron rod travels
through the asphalt and into a cylinder attached to the cork which partially
fills the jar, but does not touch the bottom. When the battery is filled with
an electrolyte, such as wine or vinegar, it produces an electric charge.
No one is entirely sure what the Baghdad batteries were for; important electronic appliances (like toasters and walkmans)
had not yet been invented. Many believe that the batteries were used to cover
silver with gold when making jewelry; the process of electroplating.
There were a bunch of wars and a
few hundred more years passed and the Baghdad batteries were forgotten; the
technology to make fake jewelry was lost.
Until the 18th century,
when Italian anatomist and physician Luigi Galvani had a bit too much fun
exploring the applications of static electricity on dead frogs; static caused
the frog legs to jump. Galvani, continuing to have a bit too much fun with dead
frogs, also noted that the frog leg jumped when two different metals were
applied to it. He concluded (wrongly) that the muscle created electricity.
Galvani wrote to his physicist pen
pal Alessandro Volta, who would be credited as having created the 1st
battery. Volta repeated the experiments and got the same results, he refused to
accept the same conclusion as Galvani however, and conducted further tests. He
postulated that the two metals, rather than the frog muscle, had created the
electricity. He proved this by filled bowls with a salt solution and linking
them together with wires of copper and zinc. In doing so he created the 1st
modern battery, and lost a pen pal. Volta then made a stack of copper and zinc
disks, separated by leather soaked in salt water. This "Voltanic Pile" created
a large amount of current and everyone was really impressed and decided to name
the measure of electric potential after him, the volt.
The term battery was coined by
Benjamin Franklin in 1748, adapted from the word's other meaning; "to beat
severely", which is what he decided an electric shock felt like. For the next
odd hundred years batteries and electricity were mainly a novelty which rich
bored balding white men would get shocked with and giggle. Many variations and
improvements on Volta's design were made during this period, dozens of
different metals and electrolytes were combined. In 1859 a bored French
scientist, Planté, invented the lead-acid cell, the world's first rechargeable
battery. It, of course, only worked with Planté brand rechargers and only came in
a gaudy yellow color. Descendants of Planté's lead-acid design live on in
modern car batteries.
Anyway, electricity and batteries
remained primarily for the shits and giggles of bored scientists until some
Thomas Edison dude showed up and started making useful electrical appliances. Edison, while often attributed with the creation of the electric light bulb, did not
actually create it. He merely refined it enough so that it was easy to produce
and lasted longer than 30 seconds. Edison and his Menlo Park team invented or
refined dozens of useful inventions, like the movie projector, phonograph (a
CD-less form of the CD player), radio, and electric chair; all of which are
crucial to modern life.
Batteries in Modern Life
The vast majority of the batteries
we handle in our lives are carbon-zinc based cells encased in pretty
cylindrical or rectangular cases. Most of the batteries we handle (except for
the ones in weird foreign or high-tech products) are rated on the same scale as
women's busts. We are all familiar with the standard AAA, AA, C, and D
cylindrical batteries. Walkie talkies and alarm clocks often use that weird
rectangular 9 volt dealie with the crazy nub things. Battery standardization
encourages consumer products to use the same subset of battery types, allowing
us to cannibalize appliances we no longer love for their small cylindrical
The consumer battery standard
applies to single-use carbon-zinc based batteries (A number of rechargeable
batteries are designed to meet the same specification, but don't technically
fall into it). Single use batteries tend to be cheaper and more reliable than
rechargeable batteries. They do, like the human race, have the unfortunate side
effect of dying after outliving its usefulness. Once current is drained, the
materials in carbon-zinc (and other single use batteries) are chemically
changed and no longer emit current. Dead batteries make excellent chew toys for
Car batteries play a crucial, but
unappreciated, role in our lives. Very little has changed in Planté's lead-acid
battery design; modern science has only improved the purity of the ingredients
involved. As their name implies, lead-acid batteries are extremely dangerous.
Most car batteries consist of porous lead anodes and lead oxide cathodes, soaked
in sulfuric acid. These extremely corrosive components are encased in thick
plastic. The batteries, when overcharged, electrolyze the water within the
sulfuric acid, separating it into hydrogen and oxygen which is all too happy to
explode with Hindenburg-esque proportions.
Batteries have come a long way; from
their earliest form as collaborators in fake-jewelry manufacturing schemes to
the enslaved devices which power thousands of our electronic gadgets. With only
more and more portable electronic appliances being invented, the battery is
here to stay for a very, very, long time.
Credit is Given Where Credit is Due
"Battery," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2003 Microsoft Corporation.
All Rights Reserved
"Batteries: History, Present, and Future of Battery Technology," Extreme Tech
Node Your Homework