Edison Batteries

Nickel–iron batteries under the "Exide" brand originally developed in 1901 by Thomas Edison. Exide acquired the Edison Storage Battery Company in 1972 and manufactured this type of batteries until 1975. Photo taken at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey.

By Scott Hamilton

As stated last week, the technology of batteries is something that has always both fascinated and annoyed me over years of study. I talked last week about the general problem of batteries when it comes to determining the best battery brand to buy because there is nothing on the battery labels that indicate the quality of the battery. This week I would like to talk about the advancements, or lack thereof, in battery technology developments. The world’s oldest battery was discovered in Baghdad and believed to be from the Perthian period, around 250 BCE. This means that this particular battery is around 2000 years old.

The Baghdad battery consisted of a clay jar, lined with copper. It had a stopper made of asphalt with an iron rod running through the center. When the jar is filled with vinegar it produces about 1.1 volts of electricity. This is very close to the amount of electricity produced from a modern lithium battery cell. It surprises me that the ancient cultures of Baghdad were able to create a battery that lasted 20 centuries and produced the same voltage levels as our modern batteries, and our modern battery only lasts 10-15 years. So it makes me wonder if we have advanced much at all in battery technology.

The technology behind a battery really has not changed at all. Though we have experimented over the years with different metals to try and make batteries last longer, or fit in smaller spaces, we still have not really come up with anything astoundingly new. The Baghdad battery produced enough current that it could be successfully used in electroplating, and is likely how a lot of ancient artifacts were plated with gold. All batteries work off of the concept of stripping electrons from one type of metal and depositing them on another through a chemical reaction. So a battery consists of two metals, copper and iron in the Baghdad battery, and an electrolyte which was guessed to be vinegar in the Baghdad battery. However, it could have been lemon juice, wine, or even urine and would still produce electricity.

Basically we have been working on making a better battery since the discovery of electro-chemical reactions. There was a large gap between the Baghdad battery and the next known battery in history. It was not until nearly 1800 years later that Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta observed electrical current being produced by joining two metals with a moist intermediary in 1791. This led Volta to create the first chemical battery, known as the voltaic pile, in 1800. At least the first until the discovery of the Baghdad battery in 1936 rewrote history, showing the same technology had been used 1800 years earlier.

The Baghdad battery and the voltaic pile were both chemical batteries that had to have electrolytes replaced in order to continue to operate. It was not until Thomas Edison began experimenting with batteries that could be recharged in 1901 that we began to understand that a chemical battery could be built such that the chemical reaction could be reversed by applying an electric current to the battery, thus storing the energy. Thomas Edison utilized two metals in his rechargeable batteries, nickel and iron. The Edison batteries were very large and very heavy, but were built to last. In fact one of Edison’s original batteries is still in operation today. Though invented in 1901 they were not broadly manufactured until 1972 under the Excide brand.

The Edison battery worked as a model for most modern rechargeable batteries; once again experimentation with changing the metals and electrolytes led to further developments. The modern lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are utilized in most modern electronics, are a direct result of this experimentation. The modern battery weighs much less and fits in a much smaller space because of the special chemicals and metals involved, but they also have the downfall of a lower overall life expectancy and a higher level of danger.

The Edison battery has been proven to last hundreds of years and the lithium battery in my laptop from 2019 had to be replaced earlier this year. However, the Edison battery to power my laptop would weigh about the same as the battery in your car and be slightly larger. Though not practical for things like handheld electronics and electric cars, Edison’s battery is still one of the better choices for the storage of wind and solar energy, due to the safety and longevity of the battery. It is sad, however, that we are not using this ancient technology, but choosing to continue development of more dangerous, though more efficient, battery technologies.

Next week I will follow on with this topic to talk about a NASA project that has been operating on the same battery since 1977, but the technology has not been released for public utilization. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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