It wasn’t that long ago that Alessandro Volta built the first battery. In 1800 he made a stack of metal plates, alternating zinc and copper, with each pair separated by layers of cloth soaked in brine. Today’s batteries are more sophisticated but use the same principle to create electromotive force, or EMF. The basic unit of EMF is the volt, named in Volta’s honor.
Many other battery types followed. The Daniell cell (1836); Poggendorff cell (1842); Grove cell (1844); the lead-acid cell, which was the first rechargeable battery (1859); the gravity cell (1860s); the Leclanché cell (1866); the zinc-carbon cell, the first dry cell battery (1887); and the nickel-cadmium battery (1899). The nickel-hydrogen, nickel metal-hydride, lithium, and lithium-ion batteries followed in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.
Decades ago batteries didn’t have too many uses. The development of the transistor (1947) led to the electronics revolution, and before long small, portable devices driven by battery power proliferated. Just as the batteries evolved, so too did the gadgets they powered—the transistor radio gave way to the portable cassette player, which eventually was made obsolete by today’s digital music players.
I would hazard a guess that experimenting with a new battery design is a matter of looking for a chemical reaction that improves battery capacity—how much it can deliver and for how long—but after a battery is commercialized, manufacturers try to improve its power density: minimizing the size or weight without sacrificing capacity.
The many advances in battery technology are helping to propel a second revolution in battery-powered transportation. The first revolution was a little more than a century ago, when battery, steam, and internal combustion were locked in a battle for supremacy in the automotive industry. Despite the obvious hazards associated with explosive liquid fuels, internal combustion emerged as the leader, but these days electric-only vehicles are back. Three varied examples showcase battery-only versatility: the practical and economical Ford Focus® Electric with efficiency of 105 miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent (MPGge) and a 76-mile range; the Tesla Roadster Sport, which accelerates from 0 to 60 in a whiplash-inducing 3.7 seconds and tops out at 125 MPH; and the Zero S™ ZF9 motorcycle that has a range of 114 miles in traffic (63 miles on the highway) and a top speed of 88 MPH.
Battery-only vehicles aren’t limited to the roadways. Unbelievably, battery and motor technology have come so far that they deliver enough power to fly a small aircraft. I ran across the details in “Inside the First Production-Ready Electric Airplane,” an article from the May issue of Popular Science. The Volta Volare GT4, a four-passenger aircraft, can take off, climb, and fly 300 miles on battery power. If that sounds a little frightening, don’t worry; its equipped with a 1.5-liter, gasoline-powered engine that runs a generator that charges the batteries. A 23-gallon tank gives the aircraft a range of 1,000 miles.
Two chief benefits are efficiency and maintenance. “A 200-mile electric-powered flight in a single-engine personal plane would consume about $20 of electricity, compared with about $80 worth of aviation-grade gasoline, and an electric motor has only one moving part, so it would be largely maintenance-free,” according to the article. Chalk two up for Volta!
Liquid fuels aren’t going away anytime soon, but it will be interesting to see where battery technology takes us over the next few decades.