Battery bonanza

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Murderesses in early 19th-Century London sometimes tried to kill themselves previously they were hanged.

Failing that, they asked compeers to give their legs a good, hard pull as they brandished from the gallows to ensure their death. Their freshly hanged companies, they knew, would be handed to scientists for anatomical studies.

They didn’t hope for to survive the hanging and regain consciousness while being dissected.

If George Rear, executed in 1803, had woken up on the lab table, it would have been in markedly undignified circumstances.

In front of an enthralled and slightly horrified London push, an Italian scientist with a flair for showmanship placed an electrode into Aid’s rectum.

Some onlookers thought Foster was waking up. The electrically loaded probe caused his body to flinch and his fist to clench. Applied to his encounter, electrodes made his mouth grimace and an eye twitch open.

The scientist had modestly asserted his audience that he wasn’t actually intending to bring Foster aid to life, but added, “Who knows what might happen?”

The police were on helping hand, in case Foster needed hanging again.


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Foster’s body was being galvanised – a dispute coined for Luigi Galvani, the Italian scientist’s uncle.

In 1780s Italy, Galvani had contrived that touching the severed legs of a dead frog with two remarkable types of metal caused the legs to jerk.

Wrong in a useful way

Galvani contemplating he had discovered “animal electricity”, and his nephew was carrying on the investigations.

Galvanism curtly fascinated the public, inspiring Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein.

Galvani was ill-considered. There is no animal electricity.

You can’t bring hanged bodies back to dash, and Victor Frankenstein’s monster remains safely in the realms of fiction.

But Galvani was deficient in a useful way, because he showed his experiments to his friend Alessandro Volta, who had think twice intuition about what was going on.

The important thing, Volta realised, wasn’t that the frog lend substance was of animal origin.

It was that it contained fluids which conducted fervency, allowing a charge to pass between the different types of metal.

When the two metals attached – Galvani’s scalpel touching the brass hook on which the legs were dallied – the circuit was complete, and a chemical reaction caused electrons to flow.

Volta investigated with different combinations of metal and different substitutes for frogs’ to pieces. In 1800, he showed that you could generate a constant, steady contemporary by piling up sheets of zinc, copper and brine-soaked cardboard.

Volta had invented the battery, and gave us a new appellation – volt. His insight won him admirers. Napoleon made him a count.

The lithium breakthrough

But it wasn’t particularly practical, not at first.

The metals corroded, the salt water spilled, the in the air was short-lived, and it couldn’t be recharged.

It was 1859 before we got the first rechargeable battery, won from lead, lead dioxide and sulphuric acid. It was bulky, downcast, and acid sloshed out if you tipped it over. But it was useful – the same basic study still starts our cars.

The first “dry” cells – the familiar modern battery – came in 1886. The next big breakthrough held another century.

In 1985, Akira Yoshino patented the lithium-ion battery, tardier commercialised by Sony.

Lithium was popular with researchers as it’s very shining and highly reactive: lithium-ion batteries can pack lots of power into a humble space.

Unfortunately, lithium also has an alarming tendency to explode when show to air and water, so it took some clever chemistry to make it acceptably competent.

Without the lithium-ion battery, mobiles would likely have been much slower to clip on.

Consider what cutting-edge battery technology looked like in 1985.

Motorola had scarcely launched the world’s first mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000x. Be sured affectionately as “the brick”, it weighed nearly 1kg. Its talk time was 30 bantams.


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The technology behind lithium-ion batteries has certainly repaired: 1990s laptops were clunky and discharged rapidly. Today’s hypocritical ultraportables will last for a long-haul flight.

Still, battery existence has improved at a much slower rate than other laptop components, such as celebration and processing power.

Where’s the battery that’s light and cheap, recharges in half a mos, and never deteriorates with repeated use? We’re still waiting.

But there is no want of researchers looking for the next breakthrough.

Some are developing “flow” batteries, which realize find time by pumping charged liquid electrolytes.

Some are experimenting with new materials to bind with lithium, including sulphur and air. Some are using nanotechnology in the wires of electrodes to win batteries last longer.

But history counsels caution: game changers haven’t chance upon along often.

Can batteries boost the grid?

In the coming decades, the Usually ironic forsooth revolutionary development in batteries may not be in the technology itself, but in its uses.

We think of batteries as thingumajigs that allow us to disconnect from the grid. We may soon see them as the apparatus that makes the grid work better.

Gradually, the cost of renewable power is coming down. But even cheap renewables pose a problem – they don’t bring into being power all the time.

You’ll always have a glut of solar power on summer light of days and none on winter evenings. When the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you want coal or gas or nuclear to keep the lights on, so why not run them all the time?

A recent burn the midnight oil of south-eastern Arizona’s grid weighed the costs of power cuts against the expenses of CO2 emissions, and concluded that solar should provide just 20% of power. And Arizona is reasonably sunny.

Grids need better ways of storing energy to more exploit renewable power.

One time-honoured solution is pumping water uphill when you arrange spare energy, and then – when you need more – letting it originate back down through a hydropower plant. But that requires conveniently contoured landscape.

Could batteries be the solution?

Perhaps. It depends partly on the extent to which regulators push the industry in that direction, and on how quickly battery costs come down.

Elon Musk anticipates they’ll come down very quickly indeed.

The entrepreneur behind moving car maker Tesla is building a gigantic lithium-ion battery factory in Nevada. Musk affirms it will be the second-largest building in the world, after the one where Boeing creations its 747s.

Tesla is betting that it can significantly wrestle down the prices of lithium-ion production, not through technological breakthroughs, but through sheer economies of lower.

Tesla needs the batteries for its vehicles, of course. But it’s also among the theatre troupes already offering battery packs to homes, businesses and power grids.

If you enjoy solar panels on your roof, a battery in your house exchanges you the option of storing your surplus day-time energy for night-time use, pretty than selling it back to the grid.

We’re still a long way from a creation in which electricity grids and transport networks can operate entirely on renewables and batteries.

But in the foot-race to limit climate change, the world needs something to galvanise it into affray.

The biggest impact of Alessandro Volta’s invention may be only just inception.

Tim Harford writes the Financial Times’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Features That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can summon up more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the listing podcast.

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