Running and running for a better battery

Future Tense for Jan. 14, 2008

By Steve Welker

My wristwatch keeps ticking, my mini-van’s keyless remote keeps clicking and that drum-banging Energgizer bunny keeps running and running and running.

So why does my digital camera eat batteries faster than I can wolf down a California Burger at Leon’s? Why does my CD player choke before Siegfried croaks in Wagner’s “Die Götterdämmerung”? And why can’t Detroit supply a car battery that won’t run down twice in the same month?

Science is solving my problems. Batteries are getting better.

The science of batteries is old. Some archeologists in the 1930s found a battery-like device in Iraq that dated to sometime between 250 B.C. and 640 A.D. Benjamin Franklin coined the word “battery” in the 1700s, because receiving an electric shock felt like being assaulted.

Italian Alessandro Volta, from whose name we get the word “volt,” actually put a salt in a battery. (Get it? A salt and battery? Oh, never mind.)

By inventing “the Voltiac pile” — a series of alternating copper and zinc plates separated by saltwater-soaked cloth — Volta received history’s credit for creating the first chemical battery around 1800.

Scientists in the 19th century quickly became fascinated with electricity. They invented copper, silver and platinum batteries; the carbon-zinc battery; fuel cells; air cells; and, soon after the Civil War, the lead-acid battery that evolved into today’s automobile battery. Waldemar Jungner of Sweden invented the nickel-cadmium battery in 1899 and Thomas Edison invented a nickel battery in 1900 that is a forerunner of today’s nickel-metal hydride batteries.

In the first half of the 20th century, lead-acid and zinc-carbon “dry” cells remained the most common batteries. As a kid making science projects, robots and radios, I relied on carbon-zinc batteries. Evereadys were my brand of choice. Most were “C” and “D” sizes — today’s common “AA” sizes then were expensive compared to their capacity — and occasionally a 9-volt after they became available in the late 1950s.

I consumed a lot of batteries, but I didn’t really understand the technology until I took chemistry in high school. In 1965 or 1966, I started experimenting with the idea of recharging carbon-zinc batteries. One day before going to church, I hooked up two “D” cells in my latest circuit (the trick, I thought, was to “trickle” in a low charge to reverse the electro-chemical process that generated the original battery power). When I got home, both batteries' contents had been blasted into my bedroom ceiling. It must have been a heckuva explosion.

Today’s rechargeables have high-strength cases and a special design that releases gas while pressure builds up during the recharging process. Note: You should never, ever cut one open. Also, immediately discard any that leak.

That Energizer bunny has been running on television since 1989, but its alkaline batteries have been around for more than 45 years. Eveready introduced alkalines in 1959 and Duracell produced the first AA (“double-A”) alkalines a year later. By the way, Duracell used the battery-powered bunny idea long before Energizer. Energizer created its bunny to parody one on Duracell commercials. The two companies later agreed that Duracell bunnies would appear only in European commercials; the Energizer bunny only in North America.

The explosive growth of consumer electronics re-energized (you should pardon the pun) battery technology. Alkalines have become the most common, because they have a greater energy density and longer shelf life than carbon-zincs. At the risk of sounding disloyal to my old favorites, the Eveready/Energizers, I will say the best deal for your money is the cheapest alkaline you can buy; it may have less capacity than the top-of-the-line name brand, but the price difference more than makes up for it.

Silver-oxide batteries are even better than alkalines, but much more expensive. They’re really superior in situations where you don’t want to change batteries very often. The Mars Observer, a satellite orbiting the red planet, uses silver-oxide batteries. So does my wristwatch, which has been running for more than three years on the same battery.

I’ll give you the low-down on silver-oxides and other exotic battery technology, including a fascinating new development right here in North Carolina ... in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of His e-mail address is

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