In the history of engineering, there are many happy coincidences and misunderstandings that have led to profound discoveries, but perhaps one of the most far-reaching was the discovery of the electrical charge generated by dissimilar metals. In the process of dissecting an animal, Luigi Galvani noticed involuntary movements in the animal and initially thought it was being caused by stored energy within the muscles of the beast. His friend and colleague, Allessandro Volta, thought otherwise and surmised that the reaction was actually an interaction between a brass hook on which the animal was suspended and the steel blade of the scalpel being used to dissect it. These two metals were, said Volta, creating an electric cell, which would later come to be known as a “Voltaic” cell.
The principles behind the reaction were soon tested and understood, and batteries became an everyday part of life. This everyday equipment has changed very little over the centuries, however, around twenty years ago when micro-electronics became viable, interest in making batteries functionally smaller led to advances in both the basic technology and materials being used. Today, battery technology is a big business, and billions of dollars are being ploughed into reducing footprints while increasing the overall efficiency of batteries. Traditional batteries store energy as a chemical reaction within a closed system, but there are increasing moves away from this type of storage in favor of more compact and highly efficient forms of energy release.
History of Battery Technology
Going back to their roots during the 1970’s oil crisis, electric cars have been a tantalizing possibility. Early examples were as simple as replacing the normal internal combustion engine with electric motors and storing a number of lead batteries wherever possible in the vehicle. The two main problems with these first steps in the technology were that the batteries were heavy and their efficiency was very low. Additionally, there was no infrastructure to allow routine charging once you had reached your destination, and the resulting cars were simply curious to most rather than credible alternatives to our thirst for oil. This situation would not go on to improve until mechanical engineering manufacturing made positive efforts to design purpose-made vehicles from lightweight materials, and battery expert companies worked with academics to look at efficiency and new technology. But now, we are seeing a new breed of electric vehicle that is both credible and offers a real challenge to petrol and diesel vehicles.
Battery technology was initially driven by the desire to make vehicles using electric technology, but it has moved forward given researchers have made new discoveries and pushed the boundaries of our knowledge of batteries forward. Market forces from the technology sector have made the race to new methods of supplying power financially worthwhile, and miniaturization of devices such as mobile phones and tablet computers have also become a driving force. But still, the research continues as designers are trying to think up new ways to take advantage of the advances being made in the field.
The fairly new field of carbon nanotubes has given rise to many exciting prospects. From ultra-tough surfaces for flak-jackets to lightweight components for vehicles, these carbon-based structures offer the possibility of being both cheap and mass-produced. But further research has found that the long-range ordering of the atomic structure may also hold the key to micro-batteries. Work continues in many respected research centers such as MIT and Stanford University to understand the possibilities of these structures. Paper-thin bendable batteries are currently a real commercial possibility and even non-traditional forms of energy release are the new exciting prospects under development. Researchers at MIT have found that under certain circumstances, carbon nano-tube devices can be made to exert waves of energy in a phenomenon known as “Thermopower”. On a different note, work is also progressing into so-called “dirt power,” where minute chemical interchanges involving the bacterial breakdown of waste material generates usable energy. Known as MFCs, or MicroBial Fuel Cells, this type of technology carries its green credentials boldly as it produces good amounts of usable energy in a very environmentally-conscious way.
Battery technology is a field with so much more to offer in new and exciting fields. As technologists uncover more diverse ways to harness energy, the applications to which they can be applied also continue to grow. This is a very exciting time to be in these emerging industries.
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