The evolution of battery technology

The evolution history timeline of batteries

Where would we be without batteries? From smartphones, laptops, and remote controls to electric vehicles and renewable energy storage, batteries are vital for powering our modern life. Did you know our development of battery technology began over 200 years ago? Check out the timeline, below.

The galvanic cell (1780)

In 1780, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani accidentally discovered that muscles contract when touched by two different metals. Dubbed his ‘frog leg experiment’, this discovery formed the basis of the ‘galvanic cell’, where two different electrodes (the two metals) and an electrolyte (the water in the frog’s legs) produce a circuit.

Diagram of the galvanic cell frog leg experiment

Voltaic pile (1799)

Building on Galvani’s discovery, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta invented the Voltaic Pile in 1799. Several ‘galvanic cells’ were layered on top of each other, each cell consisting of a copper and zinc sheet, and a cardboard disc soaked in salt water, with the top and bottom cells connected by a wire to create a continuously flowing electric circuit. Volta’s invention demonstrated that the more cells the column had, the higher the electrical voltage, laying the groundwork for modern-day batteries. His invention also disproved the common theory that electricity could only be created via living beings.

Lead acid batteries (1859)

In 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery, which is considered the first rechargeable battery. This invention paved the way for low cost and high surge current in batteries, and the overall construction and cell arrangement can still be found in lead-acid batteries today.

Diagram of lead acid battery first rechargeable

Nickel cadmium batteries (1899)

In 1899, Waldemar Jungner invented Nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries. Similar to lead-acid batteries, the prototypes contained ‘wet cells’ – using a liquid electrolyte instead of acid. This design could be used continuously and was extremely durable. Working independently from Jungner, Thomas Edison developed the same technology in 1901, using alkaline electrolytes instead of acid.

Alkaline batteries (1950s)

Despite the technology being invented half a century earlier, Jungner and Edison’s designs didn’t take off on a large scale until the 1950s, when Canadian engineer Lewis Urry invented the zinc-manganese dioxide battery. Urry discovered that manganese oxide and powdered zinc mixed with an alkaline substance could greatly increase the shelf life of batteries. This modern alkaline battery was snapped up by American consumers looking for longer-life batteries to power the fad of the time: transistor radios. 

Diagram of alkaline long life battery zinc managanese

Nickel-metal hydride batteries (1990)

In the early 1990s, Stanford Ovshinsky developed a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery that used a hydrogen absorbing alloy instead of toxic cadmium in its manufacturing process. Not only did this make NiMH batteries environmentally safe, it also helped to increase their energy density: NiMH batteries have 2-3 times the capacity of similar sized nickel-cadmium batteries. This capacity, coupled with long life, durability, high power and rapid charging capabilities, opened doors for battery use in new areas such as power tools and early hybrid cars.

Diagram of nickel metal hydride battery

Lithium-ion batteries (1991)

It didn’t take long for an even more powerful, compact and durable invention to overtake NiMH batteries: in 1991 Sony released the first commercial lithium-ion battery, which became an overnight success. In 2019 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists of their development of this world changing technology: John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino. Lithium-ion batteries are now everywhere – in laptops, smartphones, tablets, power tools, cameras, and vehicles. Lithium-ion is currently the most common battery chemistry used to store electricity, providing valuable grid stability for various sources of renewable energy generation.

Diagram of lithium ion battery renewable energy