Scientists spark new interest in the century-old Edison battery

June 26, 2012
Stanford scientists have developed an ultrafast Edison battery by growing iron oxide crystals on graphene sheets and nickel hydroxide crystals on multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Credit: Hialiang Wang, Stanford University

Stanford University scientists have breathed new life into the nickel-iron battery, a rechargeable technology developed by Thomas Edison more than a century ago.

Designed in the early 1900s to power electric vehicles, the Edison largely went out of favor in the mid-1970s. Today only a handful of companies manufacture nickel-iron batteries, primarily to store from and .

"The Edison battery is very durable, but it has a number of drawbacks," said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. "A typical battery can take hours to charge, and the rate of discharge is also very slow."

Now, Dai and his Stanford colleagues have dramatically improved the performance of this century-old technology. The Stanford team has created an ultrafast nickel-iron battery that can be fully charged in about 2 minutes and discharged in less than 30 seconds. The results are published in the June 26 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

"We have increased the charging and discharging rate by nearly 1,000 times," said Stanford graduate student Hailiang Wang, lead author of the study. "We've made it really fast."

The high-performance, low-cost battery could some day be used to help power , much as Edison originally intended, Dai said. "Hopefully we can give the nickel-iron battery a new life," he added.

To demonstrate the reliability of the Edison nickel-iron battery, drivers rode a battery-powered Bailey in a 1,000-mile endurance run in 1910.

Electric vehicles

Edison, an early advocate of all-electric vehicles, began marketing the nickel-iron battery around 1900. It was used in electric cars until about 1920. The battery's long life and reliability made it a popular backup for railroads, mines and other industries until the mid-20th century.

Edison created the nickel-iron battery as an inexpensive alternative to corrosive lead-acid batteries. Its basic design consists of two electrodes – a cathode made of nickel and an anode made of iron – bathed in an alkaline solution. "Importantly, both nickel and iron are abundant elements on Earth and relatively nontoxic," Dai noted.

Carbon has long been used to enhance electrical conductivity in electrodes. To improve the Edison battery's performance, the Stanford team used graphene – nanosized sheets of carbon that are only one-atom thick – and multi-walled carbon nanotubes, each consisting of about 10 concentric graphene sheets rolled together.

"In conventional electrodes, people randomly mix iron and nickel materials with conductive carbon," Wang explained. "Instead, we grew nanocrystals of iron oxide onto graphene, and nanocrystals of nickel hydroxide onto carbon nanotubes."

This technique produced strong chemical bonding between the metal particles and the carbon nanomaterials, which had a dramatic effect on performance. "Coupling the nickel and iron particles to the carbon substrate allows electrical charges to move quickly between the electrodes and the outside circuit," Dai said. "The result is an ultrafast version of the nickel-iron battery that's capable of charging and discharging in seconds."

Future applications

The 1-volt prototype battery developed in Dai's lab has just enough power to operate a flashlight. The researchers' goal is to make a bigger battery that could be used for the electrical grid or transportation.

Most , such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, run on lithium-ion batteries, which can store a lot of energy but typically take hours to charge. "Our battery probably won't be able to power an electric car by itself, because the energy density is not ideal," Wang said. "But it could assist lithium-ion batteries by giving them a real power boost for faster acceleration and regenerative braking."

The enhanced Edison battery might be especially useful in emergency situations, Dai added. "There may be applications for the military, for example, where you have to charge something very quickly," he said.

"It's definitely scalable," Wang said. "Nickel, iron and carbon are relatively inexpensive. And the electrolyte is just water with potassium hydroxide, which is also very cheap and safe. It won't blow up in a car."

The prototype battery has one key drawback – the ability to hold a charge over time. "It doesn't have the charge-discharge cycling stability that we would like," Dai said. "Right now it decays by about 20 percent over 800 cycles. That's about the same as a lithium-ion battery. But our battery is really fast, so we'd be using it more often. Ideally, we don't want it to decay at all.

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

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1.9 / 5 (14) Jun 26, 2012
Electric vehicles?

Has anyone actually thought this out? North America doesn't have excess electrical generating capacity. The EPA, and environmentalist law(fare) suits, have made new construction, of power plants, nigh impossible.

Where is all this extra electricity we're going to use to power this bright green future going to come from?
3.9 / 5 (10) Jun 26, 2012
Well, ideally it'd be renewables. Realistically it'll be nuclear.
But where I live the green parties have made nuclear expansion impossible, so fossil fuels it is.
1.8 / 5 (10) Jun 26, 2012
Nickel, iron and carbon are relatively inexpensive
The problem is in low energy density of this battery (0.1 MJ/kg for Fe/Ni battery vs. 3 - 9 MJ/kg for Li/O battery). The battery itself may be cheap per weight, but it's not so cheap per energy stored and it's definitely not cheap for transportation: the heavy batter increases the cost of the whole vehicle, whose construction must be more robust. And nickel is toxic and environmentally demanding. At any case, no such system can compete the cold fusion and researchers should realize it at last. They're draining money for research, which could be otherwise used way more effectively. They're essentially a parasites of human society, despite of their hard work on two hundred years old technologies.
2.3 / 5 (9) Jun 26, 2012
BTW The current price of nickel is ~ 20 USD/kg whereas the price of lithium is about 12 USD/kg. If we consider, we would need ten-times more nickel than lithium for the same battery capacity, then the question is, where is the actual economy of the whole replacement? The physicists are indeed well aware of this issue - but it doesn't prohibit them in open lying about their research at public.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 26, 2012

Nickel is cheap? There is a reason nicles are made from it.

Next NiFe doesn't hold a charge well with serious self discarge so only viable in near constant use like buses, taxi's.

They use a lot of water and not very eff charging either. That's why they made Nicads to lower the NiFe problems.

Their 'improvement' has a very short life as the Edison still have some working 100 yrs later it's hard to call this an improvement.

It's low voltage means it needs 3x's the number of cells vs lithium.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2012

BTW the electric grid can easily handle 50% of US transport without running out of power. In fact the charging can be used to stabilize the grid and stop most of it's waste just by turning chargers on and off by cell phone links. So EV's are a net gain making the whole system more eff, stable.

$1k /1kw of PV can power most EV's for 25 yrs if shopped right like as just 1 example
3 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2012
They acknowledged the lower power density. They suggested it would be used in parallel with Lithium cells, although the Ultracapacitor already does that kind of job, fast charge/discharge cycle and they don't lose 20% after 800 charge/discharge cycles.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2012
North America doesn't have excess electrical generating capacity. The EPA, and environmentalist law(fare) suits, have made new construction, of power plants, nigh impossible.
Where is all this extra electricity...going to come from?

Where in the US do you live? I'm curious because there aren't many parts of this country that haven't seen a lot of spending on solar fields. I'm not arguing for or against them but they're there. In the last 10 years NJ has installed 880MW (~1 nuclear plant) of renewables. According to the SEIA (they may be biased) 1855MW of solar were installed nationwide last year and 2800MW are estimated to be installed this year.

Renewables aside it's not a requirement to build a new plant to increase capacity. More often it makes more sense to refurbish an old plant and we have lots of those. In addition to using an existing site they have the benefit of already being connected to the grid and resources in a big way
3 / 5 (8) Jun 26, 2012

industrial scale batteries that can store megawatts --not kilowatts---of energy for LOW COST are the key to alternative renewable sources.

5 / 5 (1) Jun 26, 2012
Maybe you could reduce your consumption.

"The EPA, and environmentalist law(fare) suits, have made new construction, of power plants, nigh impossible." - ShooTard

Yesterday I read that Texans were consuming 12 kilowatt hours per hour for air conditioning.

I use less than 12 kilowatt hours per day, and am closing in on 7.
2 / 5 (4) Jun 26, 2012
They might not be very good for cars but they are still pretty good for home use with wind turbines or solar cells for the reason that they take serious abuse that would ruin either lead acid or lithium types. Their life span is much longer than either lead acid or lithium too.
Alexander Riccio
1 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2012
One drawback: A kid WILL accidentally connect a wire/piece of steel wool across the terminals without a resistor. Instant fire hazard.
not rated yet Jun 27, 2012
- only if you believe the kid's story.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2012
a rechargeable technology developed by Thomas Edison

Edison didn't develop it. He nicked it from Waldemar Jungner who invented the nickel-cadmium cell, and tried to subsitute cadmium for iron but found it so inferior that he didn't bother to patent it.

Edison simply used it as the snake oil to try to rescue his failing electric car business.

There are other problems to the Ni-Fe battery than poor charge retention and inefficiency. It also vents hydrogen while in use, which makes it an explosion hazard when you have many cells in a poorly ventilated space.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2012
In the last 10 years NJ has installed 880MW (~1 nuclear plant) of renewables.

Never compare nominal power of renewables to nuclear powerplants, because they do not behave the same. You get anywhere from half to 10 times less energy out of the renewables because they are intermittent, whereas the nuclear powerplant runs most of the time if not nearly all of the time.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2012

Did you know that solar power plants quote their output based on what they will output in a 24hr period... So unless the number was generated in the late 90's it is the actual amount of power produced.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 28, 2012

Did you know that solar power plants quote their output based on what they will output in a 24hr period... So unless the number was generated in the late 90's it is the actual amount of power produced.

No, I didn't know, because they don't.

What they output in a 24 hour period depends on the time of the year, so you can't even define such a figure without being equally misleading. The nominal power of a solar powerplant is equal to its designed peak power.

The year-round capacity factors of solar powerplants range from around 16% in southern Spain to 7% in northern Germany, so for a 880 MW plant, you can expect around 90-100 MW average output.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 28, 2012
In the last 10 years NJ has installed 880MW (~1 nuclear plant) of renewables.

To revisit this claim. New Jersey has in the last ten years installed 552.5 MWp of solar power by the end of 2011. What the rest are, it seems more difficult to find out.

That is peak power - not average power. It does not compare to a nuclear power station, which there are a total of 4108 MW in New Jersey, producing 49% of the state's electricity with an average capacity factor of 92.3%

In fact, the renewables amount to just 2.3% of the state's energy mix in 2011.
not rated yet Jun 28, 2012
It's not my claim. It's clear as day on the NJ Clean Energy Program website. Just so you know, we're half way through 2012. Who cares what the capacity was 6 months ago? Two of the largest solar fields in the state came on line this year near Frenchtown. 770MW online, 110MW installed, 400MW in projects approved/money awarded. So you're aware you are referring to nameplate capacity which is the rated max output of a panel. No one outside of marketing would use such a pointless number. Also, I would never suggest panels replaces the constant baseline power of nuclear. I just put up the nationwide avg capacity of a nuclear plant (avg capacity, not avg output! Get it straight) as a comparison.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2012
So you're aware you are referring to nameplate capacity which is the rated max output of a panel. No one outside of marketing would use such a pointless number.

Yes, I know, and yes, they do. There is no consistent way of measuring or defining the real output of renewables, so nameplate capacity is used all across the board to refer to the installed capacity. Everyone from the press to the government, to the companies themselves use nameplate capacity, and refer to the actual capacity as "powering 35,000 homes" or if they're being particularily honest, they might reveal the projected annual energy output in MWh or GWh.

The entire industry is selling you imaginary megawatts, because that's frankly the only way of unambiguously saying what exactly they have built. It's exactly the same as car manufacturers saying your car has a 200 HP engine, even though it will only produce 200 HP under very specific conditions.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2012
Also, I would never suggest panels replaces the constant baseline power of nuclear.

You just did, by placing the two side by side in a direct comparison without mentioning the different capacity factors. Let me make an analogy: a human can put out 2-3 HP of power, which is as much as a moped engine!

What's wrong with this comparison? Well, for the uninitiated, it may not be obvious that nobody can put out that much power for more than a minute or so, so it leaves you with the impression that there are people out there who can ride a hundred miles on a bicycle doing 35 mph.

And that's precisely what is happening with reports about renewable energy.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 02, 2012
Eikka, yawn.

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