The Energizer Bunny may get a charge out of this. “Batteries not included” will have to be eliminated from our lexicon, as hybrids and E-flex cars are sold more routinely. Parallel and series hybrid electrics, plug-in hybrids, battery electrics and fuel cell electric cars are in the news again as we enter another auto show season, and they all rely on ‘new and improved’ batteries.
We depend on these new, eco-friendly cars to preserve the world’s climate for our own continuing existence, and cars depend on batteries more than ever before to enable humankind to accomplish that.
Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist, is credited with devising the forerunner of the automotive battery. After studying earlier versions of electricity producing cells, he combined several single units in the ‘voltaic pile’ in 1799. The all-too-familiar lead acid battery has been used in automobiles since their infancy, in wood boxes, no less. It is powerful enough for short bursts, as in starting an engine, but when depleted, it needs a long time to recharge. It does not have much endurance power to be useful for electric vehicles.
We are constantly reminded of the problems today’s cars and trucks are causing; electrics cars are the wave of the future, again, one hundred years on. Their weakest link, the battery is under siege. New types must be developed, and new discoveries are reported routinely. Still, this 200 year old device causes much concern. Two hundred years only?
In 1936, excavations at a 2,000 year old village near Baghdad, Iraq, uncovered some strange ceramic containers. They contained a copper wrapping with an iron core. Close examination by museum staff determined that they could be nothing other but an early form of a single cell battery. Scientists and archeologists now accept that the ‘Baghdad Battery’ was indeed a low-voltage device. These earthen jars are about 5½ inches high by 3 inches across. Researchers concluded that the opening was sealed with an asphalt plug, which held a copper sheet in place that was rolled into a tube. A small iron rod stuck through the upper asphalt plug and hung down in the center of the copper tube. When the jar was filled with an acidic liquid, such as vinegar or fruit juice, the device may have been capable of generating current.
Experiments with a model of the Baghdad Battery have generated between 1.5 and 2 volts. The ‘MythBusters’ TV show fashioned a simulated antique battery in one episode and proved that the device actually produced electricity when using grape juice and similar acids. This again shows that very few totally new inventions are around that have not been used before in one way or another. Combining knowledge from diverse fields usually gets the best results. Over countless time, humans have not yet learned to control fire, be it in a forest or the internal combustion engine. Time and again, we revert to things that have been tried before.
Here we are, after “perfecting” automobile engines for a century, only to find out that we replaced one kind of pollution with another – from what horses left behind on the ground, to a type that is in the air, surrounding everything. “Back to the drawing board”, as they say. We now invented (?) hybrid electric cars, exactly –in a way- the same as Ferdinand Porsche used in 1902 to win his first races; a small engine driving an electric generator, charging batteries powering wheel-hub motors which move the car.
So, let’s try to improve the two-thousand year old battery again. From copper-grape-juice to lead-acid to alkaline to nickel-cadmium (NiCad) to nickel-metal hydride, (abbreviated NiMH) in current hybrids (as shown at left, installed in a Ford Escape Hybrid) to lithium-ion as the next great promise. Small Li-Ion batteries are powering cameras, cell phones and portable computers, but more work needs to be done to make them work in automobiles.
And already, better versions are dreamed and built in laboratories, such as super-capacitors. Recently, Toyota electrified the automotive world with a stunning, Giugiaro-designed, hybrid concept supercar, named ‘Volta’ to honor a compatriot. And coming from the people “who killed the electric car,” the Chevy Volt is only waiting for the right electricity storage medium to come along, before rolling off the assembly line — battery included.
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