15 Examples of the Past, Present, and Future of Battery Technology

Batteries are powering our world. It’s time to learn where they came from and where they are going.
  • Introduction

    Electrochemical energy storage using batteries has become one of the enabling technologies of the 21st Century. Whether it’s a smaller and lighter cell phone or laptop computer, a longer-range electric vehicle, or stabilizing a renewable energy power grid, batteries are changing the way we look at our future.

    On the scale of human history, the battery is a relatively recent invention, having only been discovered and developed in a little more than 200 years. More recently, and particularly in the past three decades, new innovations in battery electrochemistry have pushed the technology at breakneck speeds, making possible the electrification of many aspects of our daily life.

    Here, we will have a brief look at some of the earliest battery ideas, progressing to the modern day and even into the near future to help understand how this energy storage device will continue to influence our lives far into the future.

    Opening image: Submarines in World War I and World War II counted on battery packs to allow them to operate submerged for hours at a time. (Image source: Exide Technologies)

    Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

  • First Use of the Term “Battery”

    Benjamin Franklin was the first person to describe a set of linked electrical storage devices as a “battery.” While experimenting with glass Leyden jar capacitors in 1749, Franklin discovered that if he linked the devices together, they would give a stronger discharge than a single Leyden jar. Although the devices held their charge electrostatically—and not electrochemically, as would later charge storage devices—Franklin’s use of the term would stick.

    (Image source: Creative commons/Alvinrune)

  • Volta’s First Electrochemical Battery

    Italian scientist Alessandro Volta is credited with producing the first electrochemical device that was capable of producing electricity. In 1799, he invented the voltaic pile and reported on the results of his experiments in 1800. His voltaic pile consisted of pairs of copper and zinc discs, piled on top of each other and separated by cloth or cardboard material soaked in brine, which acted as an electrolyte. Unlike the Leyden jars, which quickly lost their charge, Volta’s battery produced continuous voltage and current when in operation and lost very little charge when not in use. Numerous other researchers improved the voltaic pile, substituting materials for the electrodes and electrolyte. The voltaic pile was not rechargeable (considered as a primary battery) and would operate until the copper and zinc electrodes were consumed by the electrochemical reaction.

    (Image source: Creative commons/I, GuidoB)

  • Lead-Acid Rechargeable Battery

    In 1859, Gaston Planté invented the lead acid rechargeable battery. He accomplished this by immersing a lead anode and lead cathode in sulfuric acid. Both electrodes react with the sulfuric acid to produce lead sulfate. The reaction at the anode releases electrons and the reaction at the cathode consumes electrons, creating a flow of electricity. The reaction can be reversed by passing a current through the battery in the opposite direction to recharge the battery. The first practical application for Planté’s lead acid battery was to power lamps in railway carriages. Although lead acid batteries are heavy, they can produce high currents in surges. From the early 1900s onward, they have been used to power automobile starters and accessories.

    (Image source: Public domain)

  • Flow Battery (La France Airship)

    Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs launched a motorized dirigible, built for the French Army, in 1884. The 170-foot-long craft was powered by an electric motor. It carried a 435-kilogram zinc-chlorine flow battery that Renard had invented for that purpose. Flow batteries use separate tanks for negative and positive electrolytes, which are pumped through a cell that contains electrodes. In the present day, they are finding uses as large stationary battery systems for power grid applications. The airship La France made several roundtrip flights in 1884 and 1885, landing at the same place from which it had started. The weight of the batteries limited the performance and usability of the machine.

    (Image source: La France airship, 1885 photograph [Public Domain], 2001 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

  • First Electric Car

    Planté’s lead acid battery made possible the development of electrified transportation. Several scale models of electric vehicles were constructed in the 1860s, but the first practical electric car was built by English inventor Thomas Parker in 1884. Parker was involved in numerous electrification projects, including tramways and the London subway system. Initial production of the electric car was undertaken by the Elwell-Parker Company (established in 1882), which merged with other companies to form the Electric Construction Corporation in 1888. Electric vehicles also became popular in France and Germany. Andreas Flocken produced the first electric car in Germany in 1888.

    (Image source: Public domain)

  • First Electric Land Speed Record

    The first official Land Speed World Record was set in 1898 by Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat driving a Jeantaud electric car. His top-speed run of 39.24 mph (63.15 kph) in a standard production machine was improved upon when he built a streamlined body for the car in 1899—probably the first ever attempt at improving the aerodynamics of an automobile. Later, while competing against Camille Jenatzy in his electrically powered Le Jamais Contente, Chasseloup-Laubat’s streamlined Jeantaud managed 57.65 mph (92.78 kph).  Jenatzy’s torpedo-shaped aerodynamic machine, however, was the first to break 100 kph, ultimately reaching a speed of 65.79 mph (105.88 kph) in 1899. The limitation with electric vehicles, then and now, was the amount of energy carried in the battery. Le Jamais Contente would be the last electric vehicle to hold the ultimate land speed record. The record was next broken in 1902 by the steam-powered Serpollet “Easter Egg” with a top speed of 75.06 mph (120.8 kph).

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Edison’s Nickel Iron Battery

    In 1901, Thomas Edison patented a nickel-iron battery, intending it for use in electric vehicles, which were more popular than gasoline-engine cars during the early days of the automobile. Although the Edison battery had a higher energy density and could be charged in half the time as lead acid batteries, they did not perform as well in cold weather. When gasoline-powered cars overtook electric by the 1910s, lead acid became the battery of choice for starting systems. In World War II, the German V-1 buzz-bomb and V-2 rockets used nickel-iron batteries to power their electronic guidance systems. After the war, the battery chemistry was used in railroad signals, forklifts, and battery backup systems. The Edison Storage Battery Company made the nickel-iron batteries from 1903 until 1972, when the company was sold and the product discontinued in 1975.

    (Image source: Creative commons/Public domain)

  • First Electric Airplane

    The first manned solar-powered electric airplane was built by Larry Mauro in California in 1979. Mauro converted a biplane hang-glider by adding a 2.6 kilowatt Bosch starter motor and a 30-volt Nickel-cadmium battery pack, along with wheels for landing gear. On the top wing, Mauro placed photovoltaic solar cells that developed a total of 350 watts. Although the solar cells did not produce sufficient power for the aircraft to take off, the energy they produced was stored in the on-board battery which, when fully charged, could be used to power the motor and fly the airplane. Several flights of 3 to 5 minute duration were made by Mauro.

    (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • Nickel Cadmium Batteries

    Nickel cadmium or NiCad batteries were first invented in 1899 by Swedish engineer Waldemar Jungner. Although a flooded NiCad design went into production in Sweden in 1906, it wasn’t until the 1970s through the early 1990s that NiCad batteries became popular in a variety of formats. Applications included small electronics, photography, toys, cordless tools, and model aircraft, cars, and boats. They have been largely phased out by the introduction of nickel metal hydride (NIMH) and lithium ion battery chemistries.

    (Image source: Creative commons/Brittany)

  • Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries

    Development of Nickel Metal Hydride (NIMH) batteries began at the Battelle-Geneva research center in 1967. Using sintered titanium and nickel alloys for the positive electrode and hydrogen absorbing alloys (hydrides) for the negative electrode, NIMH batteries can provide two to three times the capacity of an equivalent nickel cadmium (NiCad) battery. Initially finding application in consumer electronics, NIMH batteries became the chemistry of choice for hybrid electric vehicles. In fact, as of January 2017, almost 4 million Prius hybrids had been sold using NIMH battery technology to provide electric assist and store regenerative braking energy.

    (Image source: Toyota)

  • Lithium Ion Batteries

    The development of the lithium ion battery over the past three decades is making possible the modern world. Applications include everything from cell phones and portable electronics to electric vehicles (EVs) and massive grid storage systems that enhance the capability of renewable energy sources. In a lithium ion battery during discharge, lithium ions move from the negative electrode (usually graphite), through an electrolyte, to the positive electrode (cathode). There, they are inserted between layers of a complex metal oxide. On charging, the lithium ions move in the opposite direction. Although numerous researchers worked on the development of the lithium ion battery, the first commercial production was by Sony in 1991. Subsequent development has focused on making the batteries safer and cheaper and to reduce the amount of cobalt in the cathode, as the largest source for that element is considered to be in a relatively unstable region.

    (Image source: A123)

  • Smallest Lithium Ion Battery

    Although experimental nano-scale batteries have been built, the smallest commercially available lithium ion battery is a pin-sized battery from Panasonic that is just 3.5 mm in diameter and weighs 0.6 grams. The tiny rechargeable battery was developed to power wearable devices and micro-communication electronics. Ultra-thin (0.5 mm) lithium polymer pouch cells have been developed in China for smart cards, RFID tags, and other applications that require cells that are nearly paper thin.

    (Image source: Panasonic)

  • World’s Largest Lithium Ion Battery Pack

    At the moment, the biggest lithium ion battery pack is installed at the Hornsdale Electric Power Reserve in Australia. Its rechargeable 100 megawatt (MW) battery, built by Tesla and installed in 2017, is used to provide reserve power and reduce grid fluctuations. Hyundai is building a 150 MW lithium ion battery system in the South Korean city of Ulsan. The battery will be used to supply energy to a metal-smelting company, allowing it to use renewable energy sources.

    (Image source: Tesla)

  • EWE’s Cavern Battery

    Although still in its planning stages, a massive new flow battery uses chambers hollowed out of underground salt caverns. Such caverns are sometimes used to store compressed natural gas or to store energy through compressed air. German energy company EWE now plans to build the world’s biggest battery by using chambers created in salt deposits to hold energy containing electrolyte liquids used in a redox flow battery. EWE has worked with the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena to develop a redox flow battery that uses recyclable polymers (plastics) dissolved in salt water as an electrolyte. Although the exact capacity of the EWE battery has not been disclosed, the company claims that the “battery stores enough electricity to supply Berlin for an hour.” Berlin has a population of 3.5 million people. The EWE redox flow battery is expected to be operational by 2023.

    (Image source: EWE)

  • Solid State Lithium Batteries

    The anode side of a lithium ion battery is made from layers of graphite. Lithium ions are inserted between the material’s layers during charging and are released during discharge. Battery researchers realize that replacing the graphite anode with metallic lithium would allow many more lithium ions to flow during discharge, producing a battery with at least twice the capacity. But during the charging stage of a lithium metal battery, spiky crystalline structures, called dendrites, form on the metal surface. These dendrites can grow through the liquid electrolyte, reaching the cathode and shorting out the battery. A worldwide search is on for a solid or semi-solid electrolyte that can prevent dendrite growth while allowing the easy passage of lithium ions without conducting electrons. The goal is a solid electrolyte that will be safer than the flammable electrolytes that are presently used. At the same time, lithium metal batteries with solid polymer electrolytes might be both lighter and thinner. Such batteries would also have twice the capacity and the ability to recharge faster than today’s commercial lithium ion batteries. Predictions are that solid-state batteries will appear on the market by 2025.

    (Image source: Toyota)

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