The crime of battery refers to the infliction of physical violence, an idea that seems worlds away from the production of electrical energy in general, and certainly from the compact wafers and cartridges people rely on to power the instruments of modern life: iPods, mobile phones, portable computers and more.
Yet a physical assault is exactly what came to mind to the colonial American inventor Benjamin Franklin in the mid-1700s, shortly after he was assailed by an electrical shock from a capacitor he’d fashioned from a stack of charged glass plates. Thus, the word that seemed well-suited to explain the contraption was just that: Ben Franklin called the thing a battery.
Franklin was one in a long line of tinkerers who had explored ways to produce electrical energy from a chemical reaction – the principle work of batteries then and ever since. (There is even some speculation that crude galvanic cells tracing to ancient Persia might have been used to produce electricity – although nobody can imagine for what.)
The most exalted figure in the history of the battery, though, is the Italian physicist Allessandro Volta, who in 1801 earned admiration (and later, ennoblement) from Napoleon Bonaparte after demonstrating to the French ruler a chemical battery made up of a variety of metals exposed to salt water. Volta’s work inspired a surge of battery one-upmanship in Europe. Among the breakthroughs: the “dry pile,” which managed to produce current from a stack of silver, foil, zinc and paper encased in glass tubes but without the need to be steeped in water. Another American, Thomas Edison, produced the first nickel-iron battery in 1905. It was followed in the 1940s by the mercury cell, and in shorter order by the first solar cell, the first hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell and, in 1959, the first compact alkaline battery, developed by an Ohio company called Eveready Battery Co.
It was this last entry that seemed to sew up the requisite elements of a consumer electronics revolution: affordability, portability, simplicity and the ability to generate enough power to get industrious schoolboys through the 1964 World Series (Yankees vs. Cardinals) with a Marvel transistor radio stuffed inside a shirt pocket during arithmetic class.
The current era of portable electrical power owes much to the lithium-ion battery, which was introduced commercially by Sony Corp. in 1991. It began, sometime in the mid-1990s, to creep past the nickel metal hydride (or niMH) battery as the favored choice for powering mobile computers and other portable devices. Li-ions are the fastest-growing of the batteries, owing partly to their excellent energy density relative to weight: a Li-ion battery can pump out the same energy as a niMH battery that’s 20 percent to 30 percent heavier. And the Li-ion battery doesn’t demand any particular recharging cycle to extend its useful life. Most new mobile phones and laptop computers get their juice from Li-ion batteries. So do some newer cable modems and embedded multimedia terminal adapters – the devices that connect home phones and computers to the cable IP network. They include backup Li-ion batteries so that cable’s voice over Internet Protocol phone services can keep the conversation flowing even when normal electrical power is disrupted.
But the history of batteries tells us today’s dominant battery makers ought to keep an eye out for a handful of new upstarts that are working to break new ground. These include Florida’s Solicore, which is working on thin, flexible variations of Li-ion batteries; Zinc Matrix Power of Santa Barbara, Calif., which thinks its rechargeable alkaline batteries could supplant Li-ion batteries; and PowerGenix of San Diego, which is working on rechargeable nickel-zinc compounds and last fall got $10 million from the Florida investment firm OnPoint Technologies. Others are working on nano-scale fuel cells that could render powerful energy products in micro size. All are chasing a battery and fuel cell market that’s growing at 6.2 percent annually in the U.S. and could reach $3 billion by the end of next year, according to the research firm Freedonia Group.
For cable companies, the latest work in battery development is worth watching because it could help overcome customer concerns over the ability of new VoIP phones to keep humming away even during storms, or when the 17-year-old with the Marshall amplifier in the basement trips the circuit breaker.
Forget fancy calling features and voice- mail via Internet browser: Being able to boast of elongated phone service uptime even when the grid goes down may provide just the spark cable’s VoIP service needs.
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