The History of Batteries & The Scientists Behind It


You use batteries every day in your smartphone and laptop — but do you know the stories of the scientists behind them? Grab a coffee and lend your ears to our story about the dawn of battery evolution.

It all began in late 18th-century Bologna, with a spark of curiosity that ignited a fervent dispute between two notable figures: Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. 

In a serendipitous moment, Galvani observed a deceased frog's leg twitch when it came into contact with different metals. At first glance, it appeared as though the frog had miraculously sprung back to life. 

Galvani, believing he had stumbled upon the phenomenon of "animal electricity" (a misconception that would later be corrected), unwittingly established a crucial link between electricity and chemical reactions — a foundational principle that underpins modern battery technology. 

Alessandro Volta


News of Galvani's discovery soon reached the ears of Alessandro Volta, a respected and prominent expert in the field of electricity. How could Galvani, a scholar of anatomy, make such a groundbreaking contribution to the realm of electricity? Volta couldn’t get his head around it. Intrigued and somewhat perplexed, Volta decided to investigate the matter himself. 


After recreating the experiment, Volta made a remarkable discovery: It wasn't the frog that generated electricity. Instead, it was the contact between the brass and iron with the moist frog tissue that induced the leg's movement. While Volta could provide an explanation for the phenomenon Galvani had stumbled upon, he wasn't satisfied with merely elucidating someone else's work. He therefore decided to conduct an extraordinary experiment that would explain the phenomenon and, perhaps most importantly to him, consolidate his position as the preeminent figure in the electricity field. 

Volta’s ambition led to the birth of what we now recognize as the "voltaic pile." He ingeniously stacked alternating layers of copper and zinc discs on top of one another, with pieces of felt soaked in saltwater serving as dividers. This arrangement facilitates a chemical reaction between the metal discs, resulting in a continuous flow of electricity. It quickly became a sensation, launching Volta to fame and starting the battery's successful journey. 


A couple of decades had elapsed since Volta's groundbreaking discovery, and scientists worldwide were busy experimenting with various combinations of metals and electrolytes to create diverse battery designs.  

John Frederic Daniell

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It was at this point that a notable figure entered the scene — John Frederic Daniell, an English chemist and physicist with a remarkable education, thanks to extensive private lessons in natural sciences, which was the fashion among the affluent professional classes in London. Even at a young age, his inclination toward natural and experimental philosophy was evident.  

While the "voltaic pile" had its merits, it suffered from limitations, such as the rapid decomposition of the materials inside the battery. Daniell set out to address these issues, working diligently to enhance the stability and reliability of voltaic cells. His key innovation lay in the use of different materials, a breakthrough that produced a longer and more reliable current than earlier designs. 

Daniell's cell outperformed the voltaic cell significantly and Volta would have had every reason to be jealous again (but he had already passed away). Daniell's battery featured lead and zinc electrodes immersed in sulfuric acid, rendering it a more dependable and long-lasting source of electrical energy. This advancement meant that it could now find applications in telegraph systems and electric lighting, marking a significant step forward.  

While John Frederic Daniell elevated battery technology to a new level, to attain the electrical power we are familiar with today, the battery had to undergo further scientific refinement. 


Our next chapter unfolds at the turn of the 19th century, during the heyday of Michael Faraday, often regarded as one of the brightest minds of his era. However, Faraday's early circumstances were far from auspicious. Born into poverty, he lacked the means to pursue a formal scientific education. 

Michael Faraday

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Yet, against all odds, he would go on to become a gifted chemist and physicist, ultimately paving the way for the development of the lithium-ion battery. It's a journey that owes a significant debt to the whims of fortune. 

Fluke number one: In his early years, Faraday took up a job as a book delivery man, working under a benevolent boss named George Ribeau. Ribeau allowed him to read books during his free time, an opportunity that would open the door to Faraday's scientific career. 

The second great fortune: He scraped together all the money he had to buy tickets for the scientific lecture he was going to attend. Intrigued by all the information, he then wrote and published his own book: “Lectures of Mechanics,” in which the theoretical and practical part of mechanics is elucidated by observations and experiments. A man named Mr. Dance read Faraday's book and loved it so much that he gave Faraday tickets to Humphry Davy's lectures, a scientist he greatly admired. This was the second time fortune kissed him because it was very hard to get those tickets, not to say impossible for someone like Faraday.  

All good things come in threes: After attending Davy's lectures, Faraday recreated the experiments, creating gasses with a homemade battery, and wrote another book about his scientific adventures, “The Elements of Chemical Philosophy.” Despite all these enriching experiences, Faraday struggled to secure a job as a scientist. It was only through the intervention of Mr. Dance, once again, that he managed to get in touch with Humphry Davy, and work as his assistant — albeit for a brief period.  

When that ended, Faraday mustered the courage to ask for a permanent position, but Davy declined. However, fortune smiled upon him once more when one of Davy's assistants got into a dispute with an instrument manufacturer and was promptly dismissed. This unexpected turn of events finally granted Faraday the job he had long yearned for, launching him into the world of scientific exploration. 

All these serendipitous events would culminate in Faraday's groundbreaking work, including the laws of electrolysis, electrochemical cells, and Faraday's famous paradox. These discoveries would serve as the foundation for the creation of the lithium-ion battery in the late 20th century. 


Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century, precisely in 1991. Sony was in the process of commercializing the lithium battery, a path paved by the pioneering work of Michael Faraday. Leading the charge now was Japanese researcher Akira Yoshino. 

Akira Yoshino


Yoshino's journey into chemistry began during his elementary school years, despite initially having no interest in the subject. The game changer was the recommendation from one of his teachers to read "The Chemical History of a Candle" by Michael Faraday. This ignited his passion for chemistry. From that point onward, a myriad of questions swirled in his mind, leading to a profound epiphany. 

Back to the future — to 1985. Yoshino was on the cusp of developing an even more potent lithium-ion battery by replacing the lithium metal in the anode with a safer alternative, petroleum coke, a material derived from oil refining with a high carbon content. This innovation would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize in 2019. 

His journey was greatly enriched by earlier observations and experiments conducted in the early '80s with John B. Goodenough in Texas. Together, they discovered that lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) could serve as a cathode material with high energy density. This pivotal discovery marked a breakthrough for the first practical lithium battery of its time. 

Around a decade later, Akira Yoshino once again pushed the boundaries of battery technology by introducing the concept of rechargeability. The floodgates for commercialization swung wide open. Sony was quick to integrate this new breed of battery into a range of portable devices, including digital cameras, mobile phones, and laptops. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Today, we find ourselves in possession of smartphones, tablets, and headphones, all powered by these miniature marvels with batteries far more potent than Volta could have ever imagined. What great new technologies will come next? Stay tuned for our next article, “The Future of Batteries,” to find out.  

If you're eager to delve further into the electrifying world of batteries, be sure to explore our article "The Largest Batteries in the World" or the Interview with Anna on "Discovering Next-Gen Battery Materials."

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