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Five surprising facts about batteries

February 18, 2024

International Battery Day is held on February 18, the birthday of the inventor of the modern battery, Alessandro Volta. To help mark the occasion, we’ve compiled five astounding facts about batteries.

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International Battery Day: Five Super Surprising Facts About Batteries

Where would we be without batteries? Now a common everyday item, the humble battery has transformed our lives. There’s a battery in your car, in your laptop, in your remote control, in your phone, and in the toys your kids play with.

International Battery Day is held on February 18, the birthday of the inventor of the modern battery, Alessandro Volta. To help mark the occasion and celebrate this remarkable invention, we’ve compiled five astounding facts about batteries.

Battery Fact #1: Benjamin Franklin came up with the name ‘battery’

The word ‘battery’ has a pretty surprising history. Etymologically speaking, the word ‘battery’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘battuō’ which means ‘to beat’. This got picked up by the ancient Gauls and then morphed into the old French word ‘baterie’ meaning the ‘action of beating’. Eventually, the word battery found its way into English and was used to describe a group of artillery cannons or a physical assault.

Way back in 1749, Benjamin Franklin was conducting all sorts of experiments with electricity. While he’s perhaps best known for his ‘key on a kite string’ experiment, Franklin’s work led him to coin the term ‘battery’. Looking at a collection of Leydon Jars (which were rudimentary capacitors) he’d assembled, Franklin was reminded of a formation of cannons. He called his array of capacitors a ‘battery’ and the name has stuck ever since.

Battery Fact #2: batteries might have been around for a long time

Although Alessandro Volta came up with a working battery in 1799, some people believe that the history of batteries begins further back in time. A lot further. All the way back to the Parthian period, which ran between 250 BC and AD 224.

The famous Baghdad Batteries were discovered in a village near Baghdad in 1936. They sat in the Baghdad Museum as a curious example of pottery for the next two years. Then German archaeologist Wilhelm König took a closer look at the artifacts and noticed they closely resembled batteries.

The clay vessels contained an iron rod surrounded by a bronze cylinder. The iron and copper were insulated by an asphalt stopper. If the jars were filled with an electrolyte substance, like vinegar, they could generate voltage.

This idea was put to the test in 1948 by an engineer working for GE. He found that the output was tiny, only two volts. And there were no wires or ways of collecting the voltage. Exactly what the Baghdad Batteries were used for is still hotly debated.

Battery Fact #3: the world’s longest running battery is a mystery

Another major battery mystery is the curious case of the Oxford bells. It began in the mid-1800s when a University of Oxford physics professor bought a strange device manufactured by a London-based instrument company Watkin and Hill. Looking much like two wax candles with two bells at the bottom, the device consists of two dry pile batteries. The dry piles deliver a charge that causes a clapper to alternately ring each of the bells. When the clapper hits one bell, it receives a charge that sends it to the other bell, where it receives an opposite charge, creating oscillation. The device uses a very small charge to power the clapper, so the dry pile batteries are draining incredibly slowly.

How slowly you might ask? The Oxford bells have continuously rung over 10 billion times for the last 175 years. Eventually, though, the dry pile batteries will run out and the bells will fall silent. When this might happen, nobody is too sure. Just like nobody knows exactly what’s in the dry pile batteries. When the bells finally stop ringing, we might get to find out.

Battery Fact #4: batteries can be made from food and other biodegradable material

Think of a battery and you’ll probably picture a casing surrounding a cathode and an anode. You might bring to mind a hefty car battery or a tiny little AAA battery. But we can make batteries out of more than just metal and plastic.

Scientists have recently come up with a way to make a battery out of edible substances. Food, in other words. The battery is designed for medical use. We can ingest it, it does what it has to do and then dissolves in our stomach acids. There are a fair few complicated ingredients, but the battery contains activated charcoal, beeswax, vitamins like riboflavin, a water-based solution, and nori, which is the seaweed used in sushi.

Other research is currently underway to create batteries made from other biodegradable materials. Like crab shells. Yes, a material known as chitosan that is derived from ocean crustaceans is being used to develop a type of biodegradable gel electrolyte for battery cathodes. It’s hoped that this research will lessen our dependence on mining metals for batteries.

Battery Fact #5: recycled batteries make excellent fertilizer

It’s a bad idea to get rid of old batteries by throwing them in the trash. Batteries should always be recycled. Old batteries are a lot more useful than you might believe!

While the metals contained in batteries are usually melted down to be reused, there are other uses for depleted batteries. Batteries made for consumer use contain minerals like zinc and manganese dioxide. These micro-nutrients help plants to produce chlorophyll and aid soil fertilization.  

Batteries are a big deal in modern life. As the world turns away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, batteries are set to become even more important to our lives. We need to develop methods for sustainable battery production, use them in the most efficient way possible, and ensure that they can be recycled effectively. You can bet that better batteries are going to power us to a better future.

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