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From Frogs Legs to Car Power – The Battery

Philip Barnes & Dr Khalil Khan
22 October 2019

Battery

Three scientists have been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of lithium-ion batteries. John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino share the prize for their work on these rechargeable devices, which are used for portable electronics.

At the age of 97, Prof Goodenough is the oldest ever Nobel laureate. The trio will share the prize money of (£738,000). The lithium-ion battery is a lightweight, rechargeable and powerful battery that is used in everything from mobile phones to laptops to electric cars. 

But how did we get to this advanced stage of battery technology?

Back in the 19th Century executed criminals’ bodies were often used for scientific anatomical experiments. An Italian scientist, Giovanni Aldini used to wow crowds by inserting an electrode into a cadaver making it move and twitch to the shock and amazement of gathering crowds. The body was being “galvanised” - a word coined for, Luigi Galvani, the Italian scientist’s uncle. In 1780’s Italy, Galvani discovered that by touching the severed legs of a dead frog with 2 different types of metal caused the legs to jerk. He thought he had discovered animal electricity and his nephew was carrying on his investigations with human bodies. Galvanism briefly fascinated the British public and it is thought it inspired Mary Shelleys “Frankenstein”.

Galvani later shared his idea with his friend Alessandro Volta. Volta discovered it was not the body of the frog flesh itself but the fluids of the body which was conducting electricity allowing a charge to pass between different types of metal. When 2 dissimilar metals within conductive medium were connected it completed a circuit a chemical reaction caused electrons to flow. By experimenting with different metals and a substitute for frogs legs, by 1800, Volta, had discovered that you could generate a constant steady current by piling different layers of zinc, copper and brine soaked cardboard the voltaic pile – Volta had invented the battery.

However, no practical use was made of the discovery – the current was short lived, problems with corrosion, brine spillages and the fact that it couldn’t be re-charged were obvious issues. In 1859 the 1st re chargeable battery was created by using lead, lead dioxide and sulphuric acid which led to the 1st dry cell battery in 1886 which is the more familiar modern battery.

It took nearly 100 years for the next significant breakthrough to occur, when in 1985, a Japanese scientist, Akiro Yoshino, patented the lithium ion battery which was commercialised by Sony. Lithium ion batteries can pack a high voltage into a small space but unfortunately it has a propensity to explode when exposed to air and water. It took some really clever science to make lithium ion acceptably stable. This science resulted in the Nobel Prize for Science for Yoshino and his colleagues Whittingham and Goodenough. 

This technology now forms part of our everyday life from batteries in our mobile phones, laptops and cars. Modern day use for batteries is still being explored but no doubt they will play an energetic role in our future. Electrical energy storage is having sustained study and is under going significant developments such as surface area enhancements, electrolyte developments, materials consideration, and much more. In addition advances in capacitor techonolgy as well as super conductors are contributing to improve quality of life; supporting manufacturing, exploration of the deep seas as well as the stars. Some of the  fundamental principals afforded in the electrical batteries are electrochemical reaction which are similar to those found in typical corrosion phenomenons. 

Project METaL offers short courses (three days) in wide spectrum of topics spaning advanced materials, manufacturing processes and engineering. Get in touch to find more about how METaL can complement your business-industry work based learning program. 

Read more about the original battery article here.

Or listen to the fantastic series “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy” series 1- The battery by Tim Harford  June 2017 on BBC Sounds.