The Evolution Of Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries, specifically lithium-ion batteries, can be found in as good as all of our mobile devices, ranging from laptops to smartphones. This begs to wonder, where did all this battery recharging technology come from? In this post I take a look at the evolution of rechargeable batteries.

The evolution and history of rechargeable battery technology goes hand in hand with the development of the electronic battery itself. It roots date back to the late 18th century.

The first electronic battery

Voltaic Pile
(Voltaic pile drawing by Volta, showing the battery’s silver and zink discs used to generate electricity)

In 1780, Luigi Galvani dissected a frog that was attached to a brass hook. When he touched the animal’s leg with his iron scalpel the leg started to move. Galvani believed the energy that resulted in this contraction came from the leg itself, and thus called it “animal electricity”.

However, Alessandro Volta, a friend and fellow Italian scientist, disagreed, believing this phenomenon was caused by two different metals joined together by an intermediary. He was able to verify this hypothesis through an experiment, of which he published the results in the year 1791.

Based on the these finds, Volta developed the first electronic battery in 1800, which came to be known as the voltaic pile or galvanic cells (after Luigi Galvani’s earlier discovery). The voltaic pile consisted of pairs of copper and zinc discs placed on top of each other, separated by a layer of cardboard or cloth soaked in brine (i.e., the electrolyte).

The first rechargeable battery

Lead Acid battery
(The first lead-acid battery was comprised out of nine cells connected in parallel)

In 1859, Gaston Planté invented the so called lead-acid battery, the first-ever battery that could be recharged by putting a reverse current through it. A lead acid cell is composed out of a lead anode and a lead dioxide cathode immersed in sulphuric acid.

Both electrodes react with the acid to create lead sulfate. The reaction at the lead anode releases electrons while the reaction at the lead dioxide consumes them, producing a current. These chemical reactions can be reversed by passing a reverse current through the battery, thereby recharging it.

The first rechargeable batteries were mainly used to power the lights in train carriages while stopped at a station.

In 1881, Camille Alphonse Faure invented an enhanced version that consisted of a lead grid lattice into which a lead oxide paste was pressed, forming a plate. Multiple plates could be stacked for greater performance.

Aside improving the battery’s performance, this design also proved easier to mass-produce.

The lead-acid battery is still used today in cars and other applications where weight is not a big factor. Its basic design principle has not changed since 1859.

In the early 1930s, a gel electrolyte (instead of a liquid) was produced by adding silica to a charged cell. This allowed for the LT battery found in portable vacuum-tube radios.

In the 1970s, “sealed” versions of the rechargeable battery became the standard (also known as a “gel cell” or “SLA”), allowing the battery to be used in various positions without failure or leakage.

Today battery cells are referred to as “primary” if they produce a current only until the chemical reactants are exhausted. Battery cells are referred to as “secondary” when the chemical reactions can be reversed and can recharge the battery cell.

The development of the lead-acid battery and the subsequent “secondary” or “rechargeable” types allowed energy to be restored to the cell, greatly extending the life of permanently assembled cells.

Lithium-ion batteries

lithium-ion battery
(The principle of a lithium-ion battery)

Lithium is a low density metal with a relatively great electrochemical potential and energy-to-weight ratio. Experimentation with lithium batteries began in 1912 under G.N. Lewis. In 1976 the first modern lithium battery was described in a publication by Exxon researcher M.S. Whittingham.

In 1980 John B. Goodenough disclosed the LiCoO2 cathode (positive lead), while a French research scientist called Rachid Yazami discovered the graphite anode (negative lead).

This allowed a research team managed by Akira Yoshino of the Japanese corporation Asahi Chemical to build the first lithium-ion battery prototype in 1985, a rechargeable and more stable version of the lithium battery. Six years later Sony improved and commercialized the lithium-ion battery.

In 1997, the so called lithium-ion polymer battery was released. These batteries house their electrolyte in a solid polymer composite instead of a liquid solvent, and the electrodes and separators are laminated to one another.

This allowed rechargeable batteries to be encased in a flexible wrapping in stead of a rigid metal casing, which means such batteries can be specifically shaped to fit a particular product. This advantage has made it the energy carrier of choice for portable electronics such as smartphones, laptops and radio controlled aircraft, as they allow for a more flexible and compact design.

Another advantage of lithium-ion polymer batteries is that they generally also have a lower energy density compared to standard lithium-ion batteries.

Sources:

  • Harris, David,”Chemistry and Chemical Reactivity: Enhanced Review Edition”, 2006
  • Pavlov, Detchko., “Lead-Acid Batteries: Science and Technology: Science and Technology”, 2011
  • Cleveland, Cutler J. and Morris Christopher G., “Handbook of Energy: Chronologies, Top Ten Lists, and Word Clouds”, 2014
  • Whittingham, M.S., Sciencemag, “Electrical Energy Storage and Intercalation Chemistry”, 1976
  • Osaka, Tetsuya and Datta, Madhav, “Energy Storage Systems in Electronics”, 2000
  • Wikipedia, “History of the battery”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_battery