The Power Behind National Battery Day

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In 2011, self-confessed “battery guy,” Dr. Stephen Clarke, the CEO of Applied Intellectual Capital, publicly revealed a past social problem. He admitted that he once “was not the guy to stand next to at a cocktail party.” But with the rise of interest and deployment of new battery technologies, Clarke proudly reported, “This year I am.”

Two years later, the improvement in Clarke’s social life continues. And that isn’t the only evidence that batteries are growing in fashion. Today, the energy devices are increasingly used to power planes, trains and automobiles; run toys and household appliances; and create renewable energy for homes and businesses.

But that’s only the tip of the battery’s vast potential to change the world. The Holy Grail is to use them as the key to widespread, full-blown adoption of renewable energy. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, batteries can be used to store the energy generated under more favorable weather conditions, then distributed during the times when nature doesn’t cooperate.

Two Guys From Italy

At its most basic, a battery stores some form of energy for use at a later time. The methodologies for achieving the energy transfer differ, including chemical reactions, flywheels, pumped water, thermal storage using ice, compressed air (commonly known as CAES) and hydrogen, among other tactics.

The story of these emerging technologies starts with a dead animal.

The battery dates to the late 1700s, when Italian professor Luigi Galvani, whose background was in medicine and anatomy, began experimenting in the field of “medical electricity.” His endeavors were later said to inspire Mary Shelley to write her classic horror novel, Frankenstein.

The most popular story of Galvani’s research involves his discovery that skinning a dead frog with a metal object caused a leg twitch (the frog’s, not his). This twitch, he claimed, proved that electricity and biology were linked.

But fellow scientist Allessandro Volta, whose expertise was in physics, thought there was something else going on. As a result of their disagreement and further experimentation, Volta designed the first electric pile, a crude form of battery that could generate a steady stream of electricity. While not disproving Galvani’s initial theory, Volta’s use of chemicals and metals to generate electricity proved to have more mainstream appeal than using dead frogs.

Today, both men are remembered when we use the words galvanized and voltage.

Batteries of the Future

As we celebrate National Battery Day, the role of the battery in powering the future is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Utilities are finally deploying energy storage projects capable of generating megawatt-level electricity, helping states to get serious about reaching ambitious goals for renewable energy use. And all-electric vehicles, while not yet big sellers compared to hybrid gas-electric vehicles, are expected to steadily grow in sales.

Driving that growth will be the tantalizing possibility of homeowners and businesses actually selling stored energy back to the nation’s electricity grid when you park your vehicle for the evening, taking excess energy from your car’s battery and sending it back via your charging station. While there are bumps in the road ahead – witness the recent ground of Boeing’s Dreamliner airplanes because of overheating batteries – the outlook remains rosy for the humble battery.

In fact, the biggest problem with batteries in the two years since Clarke made his lonely-guy remarks is that he’s now not the only one standing in the corner at those cocktail parties. “There’s now 12 of us being shunned,” he jokes.