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Stanford scientists give new life to Thomas Edison's nickel-iron battery

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July 8, 2012

Thomas Edison with his nickel-iron rechargeable battery in 1910 (Photo: Smithsonian)

Thomas Edison with his nickel-iron rechargeable battery in 1910 (Photo: Smithsonian)

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A green, rechargeable battery that is suitable for powering electric vehicles and stationary power storage applications, and that would survive tens of thousands of charge cycles in a useful life of 100 years without loss of capacity. What could be a better innovation for our times? Such a battery has been developed, and recently improved by Stanford researchers. Oh, one other thing. The battery was invented by Thomas Edison in 1901.

The first era of electric cars took place from about 1890 until 1930. America's first commercially successful electric vehicle was built by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa in 1891. In 1900, 28 percent of the cars built in the U.S. were electric. Generally these electric cars had low power motors – a kilowatt or two compared to the 15 kw of the 1908 Ford Model T. Their drivability, however, was acceptable because of the effortless starting of the electric motor, its large starting torque, and the perception that relatively slow electric cars were well suited to city driving by ladies and physicians (this was the era of the house call).

Thomas Edison examining a 1913 Detroit Electric car containing his nickel-iron batteries (...

Thomas Edison examining a 1913 Detroit Electric car containing his nickel-iron batteries (Photo: Smithsonian)

Some other reasons pushing electric cars at this point were summed up in this quotation from Edison:

    "Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order – no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise."
An additional point was that the electric motor and drivetrain was far easier to build and required less precision machining than a system including an internal combustion engine – leading initially to lower cost and more manufacturers.

These same manufacturers had to find a rechargeable battery to use. Initially, the only available rechargeable battery was the lead-acid battery, invented in 1859. Lead-acid batteries were used to store electricity in most electric cars until about 1900, when alternate batteries with competitive energy storage, power capacity, and cost began to be developed.

Arguably the most popular of these alternate batteries was Thomas Edison's nickel-iron battery. The strong points of the nickel-iron battery included a virtually unlimited useful life, a physical and chemical makeup enormously resistant to abuse, and a 42 percent increase in energy density. The weak points included higher cost as well as low voltage, power density, and charge rate. In combination, these weaknesses meant that a bank of nickel-iron batteries had about double the weight and volume as a set of lead-acid batteries of equal performance. The extra cost for a set of nickel-iron batteries for an electric car was US$600 - some $10,000 in current dollars.

The competing batteries both held strong positions in the market until the gasoline engine improved to the point of clear superiority over electric cars. Then small lead-acid batteries won out as power sources for starting internal combustion engines, and nickel-iron batteries retained only a small position, mostly in stationary applications.

Pictorial of the charge and discharge chemistry of the nickel-iron battery

Pictorial of the charge and discharge chemistry of the nickel-iron battery

The nickel-iron battery uses an electrolyte of potassium or sodium hydroxide and contains no lead or other heavy metals. It is therefore without risk of acid spills and its construction and disposal are largely without significant environmental damage. The density of the electrolyte does not change with the level of charge, as the electrolyte remains unchanged by the operation of the battery. The battery chemistry in a nickel-iron battery, during both charging and discharging, acts to transfer oxygen from one electrode to the other. This type of cell is sometimes called an oxygenlift cell, with the voltage generated by a change in oxidization potential between the electrodes.

A group of researchers at Stanford has significantly improved the performance of nickel-iron batteries, which may lead to new applications for this venerable battery. The Stanford team has created an ultrafast nickel-iron battery that can be fully charged in about two minutes and discharged in less than 30 seconds, making the new batteries ideal to supplement slow-charging lithium-ion batteries in regenerative braking.

Nanoscopic picture of the charge and discharge chemistry of the Stanford nickel-iron batte...

Nanoscopic picture of the charge and discharge chemistry of the Stanford nickel-iron battery

To improve the performance of the nickel-iron battery, the Stanford team grew nanocrystals of iron oxide onto graphene sheets and nanocrystals of nickel hydroxide onto multi-walled carbon nanotubes. By doing so, they produced strong chemical bonding between the metal-containing nanocrystallites and the carbon nanostructures. The coupling of the carbon gives a low resistance pathway for electrical charges to move between the nanocrystallites (where the charging and discharging activity is taking place) and a device being powered by the battery.

Stanford's Professor Dai says, "the result is an ultrafast version of the nickel-iron battery that's capable of charging and discharging in seconds." Unlike lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries, nickel-iron batteries will neither explode nor catch fire at high charging/discharging rates.

"The use of strongly coupled nanomaterials represents a very exciting approach to making electrodes," Dai said. "It's different from traditional methods, where you simply mix materials together. I think Thomas Edison would be happy to see this progress."

Details of the battery are published in the June 26 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Stanford University

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
18 Comments

Is a medium required between the cathode and anode? Must there be some kind of resistance? Cos i was thinking why dont you just grow the iron crystals then the nickel then the carbon nanotubes directly on top of each other? In one big 1m by 1m slabs what would the storage capacity be? Iron oxide is rust right? Nickel is used in margarine right? Carbon is ash? Graphene is pencils?

MasterG
8th July, 2012 @ 06:13 pm PDT

Wow, with few more tweaks, there could possibly be an application for Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) here as micro- or nano-Nickel, Hydrogen and graphene/CNT are the most promising ingredients for LENR...

Julius Siador
8th July, 2012 @ 09:15 pm PDT

Edison didn't invent the Nickle-Iron battery, Waldemar Jungner did! Edison only developed it further.

caveman_dick
9th July, 2012 @ 03:59 am PDT

So, was there any increase in power density? Or is that what is referred to by "ultrafast" charge and discharge rates? I get the two confused: energy and power densities. Is there any comparison available (or given by the researchers) to show how these might be implemented compared to the various lithium-ion battery types? (Something similar to the comparison of the early types above where it would have taken twice the size and weight to match performance with lead-acid.) Does this solve most of the challenges of lithium-ion types? Is it manufacturable? Can the tech be commercialized, and if so, will it be less costly? How much development still must be done?

Great set-up (giving the history - very interesting), but the follow through on the current tech is a tad lacking...

MzunguMkubwa
9th July, 2012 @ 05:29 am PDT

as long as materials like carbon nanotubes and graphene are being used to improve this or other batteries, lithium ion batteries and internal combustion engines can sleep soundly.

ugosugo
9th July, 2012 @ 06:42 am PDT

Brian, thank you for a remarkable story from the past and an example of how J. D. Rockeller distrusted electric anything, we would be burning down the house if John had his way, and power was how he won. Now we have the power and John is dead.

We need not burn anything save for bankers for our power, the sun and batteries like the Edison Nickle Iron will allow us to stop burning or drilling.

Got sulfur?

Patrick McGean
9th July, 2012 @ 09:49 am PDT

So it charges and discharges fast, it is still heavy with low energy density.

Slowburn
9th July, 2012 @ 10:19 am PDT

Anyone can fast charge, discharge a tiny battery like the experiment here. In real life it's another story. Most batteries it's how it is constructed that controls how fast C/D happens.

Next NiFE is a water sucker needing watering every 5 cycles or so and produces a lot of H2/O2 gas. It self discharges rather fast and not eff charging are other deal breakers.

This is a losing line of attack and one would be better improving Li, molten salt, sulfur and other batteries that show so much more promise.

Fact is with a good EV design lead is a great, low cost battery that one can get 100 mile range from as some EV people do. My EV's use them that with a generator has unlimited range at over 100 mpg once the battery runs down which is rare.

Rather than new batteries we need lighter, stronger, more aero cars to put them in and you don't need expensive superbatteries.

jerryd
9th July, 2012 @ 11:35 am PDT

As a Radio Technician apprentice in the late 1960's, my then boss found an old metal torch powered by a 2 cell nickle-iron battery in the back of a cupboard.

It was about 2.5" square and 6 - 7" high and had probably been sitting for 10 - 20 years and was covered in corrosion and completely dried out.

I was given the job of cleaning it, washing out the cells then making up the electrolyte solution from a powder my boss obtained from somewhere, filling and charging it. It went perfectly and in tests, had the capacity that was stamped on the case - Quite Amazing

tonybr
9th July, 2012 @ 11:48 am PDT

As the article mentions (if you read it), it's a supplement for slow charging batteries based on lithium. Its designed power output and volume is not going to be dramatic in such a way that it negatively impacts the car's performance, but can actually improve it. It makes a lot of sense to use this material for regenerative braking, as the time frame for when you brake is relatively short compared to the time your batteries need to recharge.

The problem is not the energy density of this material. Mass producing graphene and nanocarbon tubes is still in its infancy and making these materials for everything except for research is inhibitive, because of its high cost. Going by the current state of affairs, you might want to think twice about having this technology in your car by that factor alone.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
9th July, 2012 @ 01:24 pm PDT

Put together a really large bank of these and you have the power source for electromagnetic weapons and aircraft catapults.

Use a nuclear powerplant to fast charge these batteries and dump from the batteries into an ultracapacitor bank to power the EM guns and catapults.

One problem with EM weaponry is the power draw needed to charge the capacitors quickly. It needs a power source that can handle extremely high discharge in a very short time. Use several banks of these batteries, charged and drawn from in sequence, and your ship's railguns can fire non stop until the projectiles run out.

Gregg Eshelman
9th July, 2012 @ 10:27 pm PDT

re; Gregg Eshelman

It is more practical to just build enough primary generating capacity to feed the capacitors

for your EM systems weapons or otherwise.

Slowburn
10th July, 2012 @ 12:20 am PDT

Humans are the most dangerous thing in the universe. Why do you think we were isolated here in this galactic backwater? I vote we start using environmentally friendly batteries so we can get on with conquering the universe.

MasterG
10th July, 2012 @ 01:28 am PDT

looks like a hydrogen generator to me. probably work better at 240hz pulsed dc charging.

Kwazai
10th July, 2012 @ 05:53 am PDT

Edison is known historically for "borrowing" and "developing" many technologies. He's also known for massive smear campaigns against competing inventors, such as the great AC vs DC showdown. Tesla won that one.

enntense
10th July, 2012 @ 06:09 am PDT

I have been looking at NiFe for e-bike use but the low current capacity of the state of the art at the time caused me to look elsewhere. If these new cells have as low resistance as claimed and the power density claimed, and are as reliable as the old NiFe cells, they could be useful.

John Clary
10th July, 2012 @ 04:40 pm PDT

"...regenerative braking."

The good side is that more power is generated then can be used. The down side is at this time is that capacitors or batteries cannot catch all of it. When 100% of charged electricity can be saved and stored - then that system will be the winner.

donwine
11th July, 2012 @ 07:00 am PDT

A good article and wonderful comments!

And ugosugo... lead acid and internal combustion sleep with the fishes.

ralph.dratman
9th August, 2012 @ 12:53 pm PDT
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