How batteries work

You probably know the feeling. Your phone utters its final plaintive “bleep” and cuts out in the middle of your call. In that moment, you may feel more like throwing your battery across the room than singing its praises, but batteries are a triumph of science. They allow smartphones and other technologies to exist without anchoring us to an infernal tangle of power cables. Yet even the best batteries will diminish daily, slowly losing capacity until they finally die. So why does this happen, and how do our batteries even store so much charge in the first place? It all started in the 1780s with two Italian scientists, Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, and a frog.

Legend has it that as Galvani was studying a frog’s leg, he brushed a metal instrument up against one of its nerves, making the leg muscles jerk. Galvani called this animal electricity, believing that a type of electricity was stored in the very stuff of life. But Volta disagreed, arguing that it was the metal itself that made the leg twitch. The debate was eventually settled with Volta’s groundbreaking experiment. He tested his idea with a stack of alternating layers of zinc and copper, separated by paper or cloth soaked in a salt water solution.

What happened in Volta’s cell is something chemists now call oxidation and reduction. The zinc oxidizes, which means it loses electrons, which are, in turn, gained by the ions in the water in a process called reduction, producing hydrogen gas. Volta would have been shocked to learn that last bit. He thought the reaction was happening in the copper, rather than the solution. None the less, we honor Volta’s discovery today by naming our standard unit of electric potential “the volt.” This oxidation-reduction cycle creates a flow of electrons between two substances and if you hook a lightbulb or vacuum cleaner up between the two, you’ll give it power. Since the 1700s, scientists have improved on Volta’s design.

They’ve replaced the chemical solution with dry cells filled with chemical paste, but the principle is the same. A metal oxidizes, sending electrons to do some work before they are regained by a substance being reduced. But any battery has a finite supply of metal, and once most of it has oxidized, the battery dies. So rechargeable batteries give us a temporary solution to this problem by making the oxidation-reduction process reversible. Electrons can flow back in the opposite direction with the application of electricity.

Plugging in a charger draws the electricity from a wall outlet that drives the reaction to regenerate the metal, making more electrons available for oxidation the next time you need them. But even rechargeable batteries don’t last forever. Over time, the repetition of this process causes imperfections and irregularities in the metal’s surface that prevent it from oxidizing properly. The electrons are no longer available to flow through a circuit and the battery dies. Some everyday rechargeable batteries will die after only hundreds of discharge-recharge cycles, while newer, advanced batteries can survive and function for thousands.

Batteries of the future may be light, thin sheets that operate on the principles of quantum physics and last for hundreds of thousands of charge cycles. But until scientists find a way to take advantage of motion to recharge your cell battery, like cars do, or fit solar panels somewhere on your device, plugging your charger into the wall, rather than expending one battery to charge another is your best bet to forestall that fatal “bleep.”

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