How did batteries conquer the world?

What about batteries enabled them to integrate into every part of our lives?
09 May 2023

Interview with 

Jay Turner, University of Washington


A row of double and triple A batteries.


How did a contained chemical reaction go from these rudimentary beginnings to one of the most important power sources in the world? Will Tingle spoke to historian and author of the book “Charged”, Jay Turner…

Jay - Lithium ion batteries are actually probably one of the most recent battery chemistries that really have only been commercialised since the start of the 1990s. So, historically not that long at all. The very first batteries, I mean the ones that became commercially available that was happening in the late 19th century and they were what we described as zinc carbon batteries. And now they were single use dry cell batteries that you would plug in and then dispose of. So very different.

Will - What is it about batteries that have allowed them to become so widespread, so completely integrated with our daily lives?

Jay - Often when we think about the story of energy and the 20th century, we think about fossil fuels and we think about coal and oil and gasoline and how transformative they were, but you know, batteries played this kind of little known, but key role is in enabling technology and modern infrastructure communication and transportation because it's the ability to use a battery to turn the key of your car and start the car that makes it so easy to use that gasoline or batteries provide this portable power that can power portable electronics. And so they don't provide a whole lot of energy, but the fact that batteries provide a form of energy that's storable and instantly available makes them incredibly valuable. And so I think that's why they've become so important in modern life as we know it.

Will - We really cannot underplay just how important batteries are for all of us. It is a miracle of science that we can have a small cylinder that we can carry around in our pocket and just instigate power pretty much anywhere. And that power is pretty good for the size that the battery is. But is there anything to be said about the fact that lithium ion batteries have been around for 30 years now and have ostensibly remained relatively unchanged compared to say the microchips and microprocessors that surround it in stuff like our phones?

Jay - Right. I mean, a really interesting question because, and one of the things that I find so fascinating is that, you know, batteries have improved, right? They've incrementally become better year after year. I mean, if you take the lithium ion battery just between 1995 and 2010, the energy capacity of a basic lithium ion battery cell tripled during that time period. But you know, during that same time period the advances in microprocessor technology were in order of magnitude or more greater than that. And so I think when you take a smartphone, there's so much more we can do with smartphones now than say we could 20 years ago, or maybe I should say a decade ago. But that's not just because the batteries have gotten better, that's been important. But the microprocessor advances mean that with that little finite amount of energy that we can get from the battery, there's a lot more work we can do just because of the computational efficiency. So I guess the point that comes from me from this question is that it's not just about batteries, right? It's the advances in other technologies that batteries power that is just as important. So it's the efficiency of the microprocessors or the efficiency of the, the motors and the vehicles that batteries are being used in. That's important too .

Will - Because we have this phone, this modern marvel in our pockets that can send signals into space and contact people a world away instantaneously. And the biggest complaint about it from the average user is that batteries die too quickly or the battery life is getting shorter over time as it degrades to the untrained non chemist eye, which it was just the same mine, the battery for all of its marvel is, appears to be one of the weaker links in the technological chain. Is it a case of batteries being good, but because they contain relatively fewer components than all the other stuff that's innovating so quickly? There is a slight case of it being left behind.

Jay - You're exactly right. And you know, I describe batteries as just good enough. They're by no means perfect, but they're just good enough to enable electric vehicles or portable communication technologies or all of these other applications. And when I look at the history of batteries, it is largely a story of small incremental advances that have added up. And it's just tiny tweaks in the materials and the structure of the batteries that have made these differences. But when there are significant advances in battery chemistries, those have really fundamentally changed the way we use batteries in modern technology. And so, just looking back over history, right? You had those early zinc carbon batteries and then the lead acid battery, which is the starter battery for most vehicles. That was developed and kind of deployed at scale starting in the 1920s. And then in the 1950s and 1960s you saw more advanced single-use batteries, alkaline manganese batteries. Those are the AAs that we think of today. And then in the 1990s, that was when lithium ion batteries really began to emerge. And so lots of incremental advances, but then these moments when there have been new battery chemistries that have been put on the market that have become incredibly important to modern technology.

Will - Speaking of modern technology, a lot of the focus around the future of batteries is going to have to be involved in integrating them into a renewable power grid. Are there issues surrounding batteries that will be sort of essential to overcome if we're going to make the best use we can of what we have in terms of renewable energy?

Jay - Yeah. Batteries are going and are already playing an important role in enabling renewable energy transition. And that's only set to scale in the coming decade. And it must scale if we're going to move to a carbon free economy. And I think, I guess in my mind kind of the big challenge is scaling up batteries quickly and at a scale to support that transition. On the one hand means that we're going to be able to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, which is incredibly important for all sorts of reasons, from public health to stabilising the global climate. But zeroing out carbon means ramping up the use of a whole lot of other materials. So that means more nickel and manganese and graphite, and of course lithium. And so at the same time that we phase out fossil fuels thinking carefully about how we source these materials, how those supply chains get built, how we ensure that there's transparency and sustainability and that those materials can be reused at end of life. I mean, those are challenges that are just as important as weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels in the first place.

Will - Now that you know all of the history of batteries, where do you think the future lies?

Jay - Oh, I think more of the same <laugh>, lots of small incremental advances as we wait for that next battery chemistry that's a significant step forward, that's going to displace the lithium ion batteries that are so ubiquitous now.


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