Batteries: Future or Failure?

Kapoor_Image2The story of the battery, particularly the battery intended to store electric power, illustrates how a technology can be both a success and a failure. People have lost faith in batteries several times over the past century and a half, and yet batteries have not disappeared. On the contrary, batteries became and remain an essential auxiliary source of electric power in both large-and small-scale technologies. Batteries have never lived up to the potential that their makers envisioned, and yet inventors such as Elon Musk continue to embrace the possibilities of greatly expanded dependence on batteries. A good question to ask then, is where exactly is the failure of the battery located? Is it just in the battery itself, its design, or the limits of the natural world? Or is it in the wider system in which batteries are incorporated?

The utility of batteries for the storage of electric power has occupied the minds of electrical philosophers, tinkerers, and scientists for nearly two centuries. In 1799, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) built the first electrochemical battery, or pile. Famously, in 1831 Michael Faraday (1791-1867) developed the first electrochemical battery in an experiment to demonstrate electromagnetism.  By the 1860s, batteries, or accumulators, had garnered increasing attention, especially among electrical specialists (scientists and engineers) in Great Britain and France. John Frederic Daniell (1790-1845), Gaston Plante (1834-1899), and Camille Alphonse Faure (1840-1898) all developed ways to store more electric power for longer periods of time. In addition, battery technology became increasingly integrated into existing technological infrastructures, such as telegraph networks, where batteries helped sustain better telegraph signals. Still, the expense of batteries prohibited large scale production at that time, or at least deterred the will to try. Yet, that did not stop some scientists and engineers from hypothesizing, if not fantasizing, about the potential of batteries for expanding the use of electric power in society.

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