The Story of Mercury Batteries

Today, the number of different materials that go into making batteries is incredibly diverse. Ranging from nickel-cadmium to lithium ion and zinc, the vast range of materials found inside batteries reflects the great many applications that they have today. Batteries are everywhere, and they are currently in no danger of being supplanted as a means of energy and power.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. Batteries are frequently touted as one potential answer to the sustainable energy crisis that is upon us today. Electric cars (also part of that solution) require incredibly advanced and large lithium-ion batteries; batteries are being used in power grids; portable solar-charged batteries are used for all manner of sustainable outside energy solutions.

Moreover, this apogee of battery technology today (and into the future) reveals quite a unique story in the energy world. Batteries are far from modern technology and indeed have been around for over a hundred years. It has taken a long time for them to become as ubiquitous as they are now, and they’re only going to become more common in the future.

To take one example, the USB C rechargeable AA and AAA smart batteries produced by companies like Pale Blue Earth resemble very much traditional AA and AAA batteries. They are just much more long lasting, have smart functionality, and can be charged from a computer or on the go. This example shows how battery technology keeps improving, as well as being used in new contexts.

A Long and Winding Road

Another thing that really marks out battery technological development as unique is that it hasn’t been a straight successional development. Instead, it has been a much windier path. Certain battery technologies have been developed, used, then fallen out of favor again. Other battery technologies have existed in the past but haven’t become common until much later. Electric cars actually predate gas-powered ones (really) and certain battery types have been developed and others superseded.

The Rise of Mercury Batteries

One story from the long and fascinating history of batteries has been that of the mercury battery. By now, were all pretty aware of the dangers of mercury poisoning. The Mad Hatter is so called because hat makers traditionally worked with mercury – and went mad as a result. Indeed, mercury exposure is known to cause brain damage. That is why you really won’t find mercury in any household objects today except perhaps safely encased inside thermometers.

Mercury batteries were invented over a hundred years ago. But it took around 50 years before they started being used extensively (in the 1940s). They certainly had their advantages: they could very efficiently provide a large amount of power and, more importantly still, a very stable voltage. They were typically small batteries, used in things like watches, radios, and so on.

The high capacity relative to their size is another reason these batteries became immensely popular, and the stable voltage made them perfect for cameras. They could give off stable and reliable power during exposure, resulting in better images.

The Fall of Mercury Batteries

This continued until the worldwide ban on mercury in household products – not just because it was harmful to health, but because it is highly toxic to the environment as well. This meant that alternatives had to be found. Silver oxide batteries, which could be used in the same applications, is generally that which replaced mercury.

From invention to a belated rise in popularity to an eventual ban and innovative alternatives being developed, mercury batteries are a perfect example of just how winding the history of battery technology has been.

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