Today in Tedium: Perhaps this sounds a little over the top to describe it this way, but our lives are basically enabled by batteries of different shapes and sizes and functionalities, with one key factor tying them together: They die. If you’re on a road trip and the battery on your Game Boy dies, you’re out a good game until you can get your alkaline batteries replaced. If the battery on your phone dies, hope you can find a charger. If the battery in your vehicle dies … well, good luck finding a jump—and hope you’re somewhere convenient. Batteries are key building blocks for how we live, and their improvements over the years have enabled us to get further and further off the electric grid while still being able to stay connected and charged up. Today’s Tedium offers a little history on rechargeable batteries—a history that goes way beyond the lithium-ion battery, by the way. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The year the lead-acid battery, the original kind of rechargeable battery, was first invented by French physicist Gaston Planté. As the name implies, the battery works by combining plates of lead with sulfuric acid. The batteries themselves, despite advances in technology since their invention, are fairly large—but their ability to push through a lot of current has made them a standby for most automobiles.
In a way, flashlights have always been the great testing ground for batteries
If there was one device that one might consider the defining use case of the battery, it’s definitely the flashlight.
For one thing, it’s a device that would not have existed unless dry-cell batteries were invented. In fact, its existence is thanks to two inventions that came about during the same period—the dry-cell battery and the portable electric light. The flashlight, simply put, combined those two things into one object, and over time, proved a killer app for both technologies.
It took a little while, admittedly; while examples of the flashlight date to the late 19th century, with imperfect bulbs and weak batteries, the technology really came into its own starting in the 1920s. In fact, the flashlight might have lived up to its name more in those early days—in that it was just a very limited “flash” of light that almost immediately went out.
Flashlights are a great testbed for batteries and lightbulbs alike—after all, you need powerful bulbs to expose light in a dark room, and you need efficient batteries that can last a long time to power those bulbs.
It may be the most tedious thing Tedium hasn’t covered in any significant length. That changes today, I guess.
The flashlight shares a long lineage with the battery—Conrad Hubert, the founder of what became the modern day Energizer, had acquired a patent for a handheld flashlight as early as 1898, a device sold under the Ever-Ready Company name.
As I wrote last year, the on-battery power meter was inspired partly by a hunting trip in which a battery’s charge was measured by testing it in a flashlight. And in many ways, the rechargeable battery made its big debut in a consumer context thanks to the flashlight.
While we’re largely not using the same battery technology, one can see the connecting lines in consumer use cases, in which devices can be charged on the wall rather than the batteries being separated from them.
It’s all a credit to a German-American inventor who saw a market for rechargeable flashlight where others saw none.
The inventor isn’t getting a ton of credit for it these days (the poor guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page), but he may have pioneered the way that we charge our batteries in the modern day.
The year Ernst Waldemar Jungner, a Swedish man, developed some of the most notable early rechargeable batteries—nickel-iron, nickel-cadmium, and silver-cadmium. As noted by the BBC last year, Jungner essentially predicted the modern interest in storage batteries—those that store a charge for longer periods—more than a century before they gained mainstream interest. Those batteries were made of nickel-iron, and were seen as potential options for electric vehicles in their day. Writer Allison Hirschlag noted the battery was seen “as something of a diamond in the rough” by modern researchers.
The German-American scientist whose flashlights gave rechargeable batteries a commercial context
Dr. Leslie Gulton was a brilliant chemist and a brilliant businessman whose great work was undercut by a World War. But despite the fact that , and like many brilliant chemists and brilliant businessmen who left Europe just before World War II, he had to start over when he got to the U.S.
As noted in a 1963 New York Times profile on Gulton, he had found early success in building a research institute at the University of Frankfurt into a successful money-making business by utilizing its resources for contracts in private industry—fulfilling a need in the years after World War I. Soon, he was launching a chemical manufacturing business in France with his wife Edith.
But as the rise of Nazi Germany became harder to ignore, the Gluttons moved to the United States, where Leslie hoped to move into academia—only to have World War II disrupt their plans. By 1941, Leslie Gulton and a few business partners had launched a factory in New Jersey, which produced a variety of goods for war.
The war gave Gulton Industries the opportunity to build a business that, after the war, was highly diversified and well-suited to build a variety of products, including in the electronics and aerospace fields.
But it was a product that marketers were convinced he couldn’t sell that proved his company’s most notable legacy. The idea leveraged the company’s growing skill in developing nickel and silver cadmium batteries, two types of rechargeable battery that were many consumers’ first interaction with rechargeables. Gulton had developed battery tech for satellites that was intended for long-term storage of energy, and it was looking for a way to commercialize the technology.
And yes, they found it with the flashlight. Essentially, Gulton wanted to sell a rechargeable flashlight with a battery that could be plugged in. It was one of the first examples of this kind of device in the market, and he couldn’t find any takers from other companies. The problem? The battery, mixed with the design, added additional cost to the flashlight, which was seen as pushing the device out of many budgets.
Gulton’s company pitched the idea to manufacturers of flashlights, but found no takers. Eventually, Gulton got into the flashlight business itself, selling the device as the Lifelite, a popular type of flashlight throughout the 1960s.
Like modern lithium-ion batteries, the battery was sealed and non-replaceable. Unlike modern lithium-ion batteries, it could be disconnected from the main device and plugged in on its own. While more expensive than most flashlights of the era, it found its audience, people who quickly figured out that having a battery baked into the flashlight itself meant you didn’t have to spend so much money on alkaline batteries.
The success with the flashlight, shown in the Gulton ad above (no help from Google, which thought I was trying to say “fulton”), was a big focus of the Times piece.
Unfortunately, its battery-storage follow-up wasn’t quite so successful. Gulton had worked with American Motors Corporation on battery-based electric cars, which were still quite experimental during the late 1960s. The vehicles based on the battery technology failed to move beyond the concept stage (likely because they looked incredibly weird), and AMC was facing huge losses elsewhere, leading the electric vehicle idea to get shelved. Soon enough, Gulton Industries had sold and Leslie Gulton left the company he founded.
But the surprising thing is that, despite the many corporate mergers that followed, Gulton Industries largely survives today, thanks to a very specific niche—barcode printheads. And shockingly, the company managed to carry the legacy of its flashlight era into the modern day, thanks to longtime employee Om Srivastava, who was hired in 1964 and eventually bought the company and ran it until his 2020 passing.
While Gulton doesn’t make flashlights today, it did stick around while largely avoiding outsourcing. That’s pretty cool.
Five types of rechargeable batteries that aren’t made of lithium
- Nickel–metal hydride batteries. Probably the most common alkaline-style rechargeable battery you’ll likely run into today, these batteries utilize hydrides—the combination of hydrogen and another substance, in this case oxygen. These have effectively replaced the older nickel-cadmium battery form, which was used in many of the same ways, but also is considered more dangerous for the environment. While not as long-lasting as lithium-ion and as a result slowly getting replaced in the market, they have found consistent use in many consumer and industrial contexts where removable batteries are preferred. Fun fact: both NiMH and NiCd batteries (along with some types of lithium-ion batteries) rely on a “jelly roll” style of battery design, which effectively rolls up a sandwich of materials (including anode and cathode materials, along with insulators) into a roll looking very similar to a jelly roll.
- Nickel-hydrogen batteries. A predecessor technology to NiMH batteries, the key differentiating factor from a chemistry standpoint is that the hydrogen gas is used instead of hydrides—making it fairly impractical for most consumer use cases. So where are these used instead? Easy—aerospace applications. Nickel-hydrogen first found use with satellites and other similar types of use cases, but has reemerged in recent years as a potential option for low-cost, yet large-scale energy storage, effectively a strong alternative to lithium-ion.
- Sodium-sulfur batteries. For decades, attempts have been made to develop molten-salt batteries that can hold energy for large periods, while leveraging the abundance of salt in the environment. The sodium-sulfur battery, first developed in the 1960s by the Ford Motor Company, is the first example of a molten-salt battery on the market, with higher storage capacity of anything on the market today. So, what’s the problem? Well, as implied by the name “molten-salt,” it requires sodium or other materials to be stored in liquid forms at high temperatures (570 degrees in the case of sodium-sulfur), making it impractical for room-temperature uses. But others have continued to experiment with molten salts …
- Liquid metal batteries. An evolution of the existing work on molten salts, this type of battery has emerged as a potential form of long-term energy storage that could last for years, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Donald Sadoway helping to develop technologies using different types of metals, such as magnesium-antimony and lead-antimony. This experimentation, being commercialized under the name Ambri, aims to make it possible to store energy from wind and solar for, potentially, years.
- Sodium-ion batteries. As I’ve written in the past, lithium has become such a valuable material for making batteries that it could create procurement and supply problems in the future. What’s one way to solve that problem? Easy—go with something extremely common instead. Sodium-ion batteries, developed during the same period as lithium-ion batteries and based on the same general principles, are less energy-dense than lithium-ion batteries, but its materials are significantly easier to procure—and it’s a much safer than lithium-ion. It’s seen as a potential solution for electric cars, but the chemistry is imperfect, and the batteries don’t last as many cycles as their lithium cousins do. But the technology is being actively developed in response to lithium-ion’s supply limitations.
The minimum temperature that researchers have been able to get lithium-ion batteries to effectively work at by changing its anode material from graphite to a bumpy carbon-based material, a solution that in the long run could help solve one of the rechargeable battery’s greatest weaknesses—it sucks at maintaining a charge in cold weather. The research, conducted by engineers at a number of Chinese universities, was recently featured in ACS Central Science.
If you want to consider how far we’ve come with rechargeable battery technology, I want to point to a single device that in many ways points out all of the potential faults rechargeable batteries can have—and how its failure set the stage for solving most of them.
That device? The Macintosh Portable. Developed in the late ’80s in an attempt to give Apple’s computers a portable context, the technology was very much not a laptop. It weight 16 pounds, and was closer in conceit to a Compaq than a Powerbook.
The technology had many design flaws, most of which were related to the lead-acid battery it used. Both now and at the time, lead-acid batteries were best-known for being used in cars, and a lot of the problems with lead-acid translated to the Macintosh Portable. The high-powered battery, which lasted longer than its NiMH-based competitors of the era, allowed it to offer an experience similar to that of a desktop computer over a long period, but it was otherwise poorly suited for the job. For one thing, if the machine idled, it wasted just as much battery as it did when it was in active use, not exactly making it a great choice to leave the computer on when you weren’t using it.
For another, you couldn’t just take out the battery and plug it into the wall—it required the battery to power on and function, a mistake that Apple quickly learned from.
But the real killer occurred when you stuck the thing in a closet after disuse. The lead-acid battery only really works well if it remains charged, just like with a car. And that means trying to find a battery for these things means having to get experimental, possibly even building your own batteries to make it all work.
Soon enough, Apple figured out that it needed to take a less-ambitious approach to portability—which led to the much-more-logical PowerBook line of machines a few years later, a general mold the entire industry still uses today.
Now we have computers with batteries that can last far longer than that but weigh 20 percent as much. Our phones are significantly more powerful than the Macintosh Portable ever was—and even better, they have a built-in flashlight.
Not a bad evolution in a little over three decades.
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