San José State University
& Tornado Alley
The Timeline of the|
Development of Battery Technology
Batteries provide power for a multitude of devices. The dream of the early 21st century is to have
batteries provide the power for personal travel vehicles. In the competition with gasoline for vehicular
power battery technology is up against some enormous disadvantages compared to gasoline in terms of density
of energy per unit volume and per unit weight. The graph below is based upon figures given by Robert Bryce in
his book Power Hungry. The units are in terms of kilowatt-hours because that is the quantity of energy per se
that the general public is most familiar with. Megajoules as a unit of energy is meaningless to most people.
The comparison of energy per unit weight is not necessarily the final criterion, but it is relevant. Allowance
should be made for the relative efficiency of the motors required to utilize that energy. Likewise the relative weight
of the motors should enter the comparison. But the above comparison of the energy density of batteries with gasoline
leave little doubt that it is almost impossible for battery technology to overcome the disadvantage
compared to gasoline.
Timeline of the Development of Battery Technology
- c. 600 BCE: Thales of Miletus discovered that an electric charge can be created by rubbing fur on glass. Thales coined the
term electricity from the Greek word for amber.
- 1740's: Invention of the Leyden Jar in the city of Leyden in the Netherlands. This device can store electric charge.
A set of Leyden jars connected in series can establish a high voltage. Such a series was called a battery from the
word for a series of similar devices connected together.
- 1800: Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta announces his invention of a device to create electricity consisting
of alternating disks of copper and zinc separated by cardboard soaked in salt water. This was called a Voltaic pile.
Scientists using large Voltaic piles were able to electrolyze substances into their constituent elements. Thus it was found
that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen.
- 1817: Johan Arfwedson, a Swedish chemist, discovers the element lithium. The name of the element comes from the
Greek word lithos for stone.
- 1820: Hans Christian Oersted in Copenhagen discovers that electricity flowing through wires affects a magnetic
- 1859: Gaston Planté, a French physicist, invents the rechargeable lead-sulfuric acid battery.
- 1881: Camille Alphonse Faure, a French chemical engineer, discovers how to manufacture Planté's lead-acid battery.
- 1902: Thomas Edison announces the development of an iron-nickel battery.
- 1908: Thomas Edison improves the performance of the iron-nickel battery by adding lithium hydroxide to the electrolyte.
- 1947: Researchers at Bell Laboratories, the research branch of AT&T, developed the concept of the cellular telephone. A
network of radio transmitters and receivers partition a city into cells so that the signal from a mobile telephone is
passed one cell to another as the user travels across the city. AT&T thought of this in terms of car phones, but
researchers elsewhere worked to make it feasible for hand-held phones to be used.
- 1967: Researchers at the Ford Motor Co. develop a radically different technology for batteries. It involves liquid electrodes
separated by a ceramic electrolyte. The electrodes are sodium and sulfur held at a temperature of 300°C (572°F). The
electrolyte was aluminum oxide (alumina). This sparked research into the field of ion transport.
- 1972: A conference was held in Italy of people interested in applying the new discoveries in ion transport to creating
batteries and fuel cells.
- c. 1972: The Exxon Corporation decided to seek new field to replace petroleum at it main focus. It did this my creating a division
called Exxon Enterprises to fund basic research. Exxon Enterprises then set up Exxon Research and Engineering to hire the
brightest scientist available to do research on such things as high temperature superconductivity. During this research it was
found that Tantalum Disulfide injected with Potassium had potential for a new type of battery. This led to substituting Titanium
for Tantalum and Lithium for Potassium. The titanium lithium combination had the potential for creating a battery with
a storage capacity of 480 watts-hours per kilogram, approximately 0.5 kilowatt-hrs/kg.
This research was carried out by a
group led by a scientist from Oxford University named Michael Stanley Whittingham.
M. Stanley Whittingham
- 1973: A Motorola engineer named Martin Cooper made the first call from a mobile handheld telephone. The telephone battery had
a life of only about twenty minutes but that was alright because the telephone was heavy enough that the user would grow tired
from holding up for less than that amount of time.
- 1976: Exxon Research and Engineering announced the LiTiS2 (lithium-titanium disulfide) battery. Lithium perchlorate
was used as the electrolyte, but the positive electrode was aluminum rather than metallic lithium.
- 1976: Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act. President Gerald Ford
vetoed it, but Congress overrode his veto.
An American physicist working at Oxford University, John Goodenough, undertook a program of research in battery technology
concerning combinations of lithium and metal oxides. He had previously studied lithium nickel oxides. The metals the research
involved were chromium, cobalt and nickel. Later he moved to the University of Texas at Austin and continued this program and
investigating the possibility of using iron as the metal.
Previous the rechargeable battery technology involved creating batteries which were fully charged. Goodenough and his researchers
developed the simpler technology in which the batteries were created uncharged.
- 1979: Sony markets the Walkman, the first portable audio cassette player. It needed significantly greater energy storage to
power the motor than other electronics devices. It demonstrated the need and market for better battery technology.
- 1979: General Motors announced its Electovette, a vehicle powered by a new type of battery, the zinc-nickel oxide battery. It had
a 100 mile range for speeds less than 50 miles per hour.
- 1979: The new Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker, decided to curb inflation once and for all by
instituting a tight monetary policy. This led to record high interest rates and thereby collapsed the purchase of U.S. output for investment
in plant, equipment and inventory. The result was the most severe recession since the Great Depression of the 1930's. Subsequently
Exxon decided to stick to its core industry of petroleum products. It licensed the LiTiS2 battery technology to the
American company of Eveready, a subdivision of Union Carbide. The technology was also licensed to a Japanese company and a European company.
- 1980: John Goodenough announced the successful development of the lithium-cobalt oxide battery. Rachid Yazami of
Morocco discovers a proocess that led to the lithium-graphite anode required for the commercialization of the
lithium ion battery.
- 1982: The Finnish company Nokia introduces a car phone. It weighs nearly 22 pounds.
- 1982: Stanford Ovshinsky develops a battery based upon nickel and metal hydrides. The positive electrode is a foam made from nickel and
the negative electrode is composed of the hydroxides of eight or nine metals. The electrolyte is a water solution of potassium hydroxide.
- 1983: A subsidiary of AT&T, Ameritech Mobile Communications, launched the first commercial cellular telephone network. This was
a car-phone system.
- 1984: Motorola began marketing its handheld mobile phone, called the DynaTAC 800X. It was heavy and bulky and cost almost $4 thousand.
- 1985: After several years of work Akira Yoshino of the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Japan created the protopetyep
lithium ion battery and a paternt for it was granted.
- 1986: The price of petroleum fell drastically reducing the incentive for finding an alternate technology for vehicular travel.
The price of petroleum fell because the record high price of the early 1980's led to discoveries of natural gas and petroleum in
the bed of the North Sea, in Alaska and in Mexico. Additionally Saudi Arabia vastly expanded its production to bring down the
price of energy to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan. This worked so well that the Soviet Union collapsed
only a few years later.
The energy density of the batteries on the market at that time was less than 40 watt-hrs per kilogram, in contrast to gasoline
having an energy density of 12 KILOWATT-hrs per kilogram (12 thousand watt-hrs/kg). Companies like Exxon, General Electric and General Motors
closed down their research in new battery technology. The U.S. Federal Government drastically reduced its funding of basic research
during the Reagan Administration. As a result it was only the universities and companies outside of the U.S. that continued to do basic research and
development in battery technology.
- 1987: In the early 1980's Sony of Japan had entered into an agreement with Eveready of the U.S. to develop a mass market rechargeable
lithium battery. The parent company of Eveready, Union Carbide, was in deep trouble concerning the disaster of its plant in Bhopal, India
and sold off Eveready. Sony was able to buy out the joint venture with Eveready and in 1984 announced that it would be able to
manufacture a rechargeable lithium battery. It was based upon lithium cobalt oxide with a carbon electrode. This new technology was
called lithium ion to distinguish it from other problematic lithium based batteries. The voltage of this
product was 3.6 volts. This was a tremendous breakthrough. Cell phones need 7 volts for their radio frequency power amplifiers
which broadcast their signals. The nickel-cadmium battery had a voltage of only 1.2 volts so six had to be connected in series.
Sony's lithium ion battery only required two in series. The lithium ion battery could go through hundreds of charge-discharge cycles.
Furthermore the lithium ion battery did not suffer from the memory effect of nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride batteries
which lose energy capacity from being recharged before they are completely run down.
- 1988: A company in British Columbia, Canada marketed a revised version of its rechargeable lithium battery. It was based upon
lithium-molybdenum and hence the company was called Moli. It turned out that this technology had a problem with some of the batteries
catching on fire. Since they were used in cell phones and laptops this was an unacceptable risk.
- 1990: Michael Davis, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), proposed that the automobile companies of General Motors, Ford
and Chrysler form a consortium to develop a superior battery suitable for powering an automobile. This was analogous to the consortiums
created in Japan for technology development sponsored by the Japanese government. The DOE would contribute research funds
and the consortium could secure patents for the technology developed. Chrysler dropped out early and GM and Ford could not agree on
the relative value of the technology they had already developed so nothing came of the proposal.
- 1991: The Japanese company Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) creates a subsidiary DoCoMo to deal with mobile phone operations.
The name is based upon the Japanese word dokomo, meaning everywhere, but spelled DOCOMO so it can be said to be an abbreviation of the English phrase
Do communications over the mobile network.
- 1993: A researcher working with John Goodenough at UT-Austin creates lithium ferrous phosphate LiFePO4 and finds it has some possibility
as the basis for a new battery technology. LiFePO4 is almost always called lithium iron phosphate.
Stanford Ovshinsky, an independent inventor, demonstrates a Chrysler minivan powered by his nickel metal hydride battery pack.
- 1994: Motorola marketed its MicroTAC Elite cell phone using a lithium ion battery. The user could talk for 45 minutes from a
fully charged battery.
- 1996: Motorola marketed its Motorola StarTAC. It weighed only 3.1 ounces and would fit into a shirt pocket. The small size was
achieved by reducing the voltage requirement of its radio frequency amplifier to 3 volts, compared with others which required 7 volts. It, however, sold
between one and two thousand dollars.
- 1996: Michael Armand, a scientist working with Hydro-Québec, secures the legal rights to lithium iron phosphate from John Goodenough group at
UT-Austin for his employer.
- 1999: The Japanese company NTT DoCoMo announced the first internet capable cell phone. It was called imode.
- 2001:A professor from M.I.T., Yet-Ming Chiang and three associates founded a company named A123 Systems in Boston.
Yet-Ming Chiang's group at A123 Systems publish an article that purports to have achieved extraordinarily high performance from
lithium iron phosphate through the technique of doping, i.e., adding small amounts of other elements to the crystalline
structure of a material. Other scientists disputed the assertion that the results were due to doping. Instead they believed
they were due to the accidental addition of carbon to lithium iron phosphate.
- 2009: The Obama Administration decided to fund battery technology development. They called James Greenberger of the National Alliance
for Advanced Technology Batteries and asked how much money was needed. Greenberger gave them a wild, off-the-cuff figure of $2 billion
not expecting that anything like that amount would be made available. But incredibly that is the amount that was given in the
- 2012: A123 files for bankruptcy. The Obama administration had given A123 $249 million. A123 was subsequently sold
to the Chinese conglomerate Wanxiang Group for $257 million.
- 2014: The Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering is awarded to John B. Goodenough, Yoshio Nishi, Rachid Yazami and Akira Yoshino
for their development of the lithium battery. This prize is one of the two top prizes in engineering; in effect
it is the Nobel prize in engineering. The recipients share a $500,000 award.
(To be continued.)
Seth Fletcher, Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, Hill and Wang, New York, 2011.
Michael Shnayerson, The Car That Could,, Random HOuse, New York, 1996.