The humble battery: 210 years later, the breakthrough we still await  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Energy Bulletin has an article from Steve LeVine on the history of battery - The humble battery: 210 years later, the breakthrough we still await.

The battery could be a shoo-in for the most confounding of all technologies. Invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, it not only has yet to be perfected, but has operated all along on essentially the same chemical principles. Were that it were different: If engineers could figure out how to store sufficient electricity in a sufficiently small, light, safe container, there would be a cascading revolution -- in super-utilities, electric cars, laptops and mobile phones. With the possibility of a trillion-dollar industry at stake -- if consumers en mass decide that they want plug-in hybrids, for instance -- engineers and scientists from the Silicon Valley to Japan, China and Korea are manically working on the technological challenge.

Henry Schlesinger, a New York-based science journalist, sets out to right a gaping authorial wrong in his new book, The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution. In the introduction, Schlesinger notes rightly that an omnibus account of the this exceedingly fascinating technology -- from Volta to today -- simply doesn't exist.

It still doesn't. This is less a history of the battery than a romp through some of the biggest names in the most exciting periods of invention in the last two centuries -- Davy, Faraday, Edison and Marconi. It reads like an extended Google search of such personalities, with a special focus on electric-powered devices. Schlesinger hints as to why the book turned out this way: "If there are detours," he writes, "it is only because the facts uncovered were either too interesting or too much fun to leave out."

Point made. The missing history of the battery is still missing. Yet the result is still fun. Schlesinger's zest for those detours is infectious.

A bit of advice: Skip the first 18 pages, in which Schlesinger orphans far-afield basic science history. From there, he plunges in to his broad tale. ...

Yet we do end up understanding that batteries are important. In the last few pages, Schlesinger casts his gaze on current efforts to realize the battery's potential, hop-scotching through carbon nanotubes, genetically altered virus batteries, and bio-batteries using vodka, sugar or urine. The book ends on a hopeful note. Schlesinger writes, "Battery development is, at long last, catching up to related fields."

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