Batteries are an ingenious invention which have made modern life possible. Batteries are a form of chemical energy storage that dates back over 300 years. In 1789, Alessandro Volta immersed a copper rod and a zinc rod in an acetic acid solution, yielding an electrical charge. The zinc and copper rods acted as the battery’s electrodes, the acetic acid as the electrolyte. In Volta’s prototype battery, the acid corroded the zinc electrode. Meanwhile, the copper electrode trapped the energy produced from the chemical reaction. Though batteries have evolved a lot in three centuries, Volta’s electrochemical principles remain the foundation of today’s battery industry. But Alessandro Volta’s battery was still a delicate and impractical contraption.
Many scientists made slight improvements or adjustments to Volta’s concept, but it was not until 1868 that a practical wet cell battery was developed by Frenchman Georges Leclanché. He replaced the copper electrode with manganese-dioxide powder held in a porous cup. Leclanché also used an ammonium chloride solution instead of acetic acid. His entire battery cell was contained in a glass jar, making it the first practical wet cell battery. Leclanché’s battery was widely used in the world telegraph network, and to power signals and electric bells. During the telephone’s early years, telephone power was not yet centralized at exchanges, meaning each phone needed its own energy source. That energy source was Leclanché’s wet cell battery. As useful as it was, the wet cell battery was still quite heavy and relatively easy to break.
In 1887, Carl Gassner took batteries a step further when he patented the first “dry” cell battery. The dry cell still used zinc as its negative electrode, just like Volta’s battery, but had little else in common. Gassner secured the previously liquid electrolyte solution by absorbing it into a porous material which maintained contact with the electrodes. Gassner also sealed the battery, making it safer and portable. He also made other adjustments to the chemical composition, reducing zinc corrosion, thereby lengthening the life of the battery. Gassner’s design turned batteries into neat, sealed packages that could eventually be mass produced. In fact it only took three years from the time of Gassner’s patent until the National Carbon Company in Cleveland, Ohio (later known as Union Carbide) began churning out the first mass produced dry cell batteries. Over time, batteries became smaller, lighter and longer lasting.
Since batteries’ mass production in the 1890s, no significant alterations were made to battery design until the 1970s. The 1970s ushered in a new generation of battery technology, incorporating wider varieties of metals and developing the first practical rechargeable batteries. Today’s batteries come in all shapes, sizes and compositions. In addition to the traditional zinc chloride and carbon zinc batteries, we also rely on alkaline, lead acid, lithium, nickel cadmium and silver oxide batteries. The proliferation of specialized batteries with a wider variety of chemicals and heavy metals has made the responsible recycling of batteries more important than ever. Organizations like Battery Recycling Made Easy are indispensable resources for gathering and processing retired batteries.