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Batteries - a short History

Ancient galvanic cells have been discovered in Sumerian ruins outside of Baghdad dated to around 250 B.C.. The cells were composed of a clay jar with a iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder and a vinegar as electrolyte. Asphalt was used to seal the jar and to fixate the electrodes. These first galvanic cells were probably used for electroplating jewellery with thin layers of gold or silver.

The re-discovery of the battery in Europe was demonstrated more than 2000 years later. Most historians date the invention of batteries to about 1800 when experiments by Alessandro Volta resulted in the generation of electrical current from chemical reactions between dissimilar metals. The original voltaic pile used zinc and silver disks and a separator consisting of a porous non-conducting material saturated with sea water.

sail080c_A.gif When stacked, a voltage could be measured across each silver and zinc disk. Experiments with different combinations of metals and electrolytes continued over the next 60 years.

Large and bulky variations of the voltaic pile provided the only practical source of electricity in the early 19th century. They were the original primary battery.

Johann Ritter first demonstrated the elements of a rechargeable battery in 1802, but rechargeable batteries remained a laboratory curiosity until the development, much later in the century of practical steam-driven dynamos to recharge them.

During the first half of the 19th century experiments continued with a variety of electrochemical couples (combinations of positive and negative electrode materials and electrolyte). Finally about 1860, the ancestors of today's primary and secondary batteries were developed.

On the primary side, in the 1860's George Leclanché developed a first form of the carbon-zinc battery. The original version was a wet cell with the electrodes immersed in a pool of electrolyte. It became popular because it was rugged, easy to manufacture, and stored well.
Secondary batteries date back to 1860 when Raymond Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery. His cell used two thin lead plates separated by rubber sheets. He rolled up the combination and immersed it in a dilute sulphuric acid solution. Initial capacity was extremely limited since the positive plate had little active material available for reaction.

About 1881, Fauré and others developed batteries using a paste of lead oxides (PbO2) for the positive plate active materials. This allowed much quicker formation and better plate efficiency than the solid Planté plate.

Although the rudiments of the flooded lead-acid battery date back to the 1880's, there has been a continuing stream of improvements in the materials of construction and the manufacturing and formation processes.

Since many of the problems with flooded lead-acid batteries involved electrolyte leakage, many attempts have been made to eliminate free acid in the battery.
German researchers developed the gelled-electrolyte lead-acid battery in the early 1960's which was a major improvement. Todays high performance gel-cell batteries are based on this principle. Since they contain no water-based electrolyte, they can also be used upside-down, which make them attractive for usage on vessels.

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