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The battery invented 120 years before its time


(Image credit: Getty Images)

By Allison Hirschlag23rd February 2021

At the turn of the 20th Century, Thomas Edison invented a battery with the unusual quirk of producing hydrogen. Now, 120 years later, the battery is coming into its own.

Traveling down a gravelly road in West Orange, New Jersey, an electric car sped by pedestrians, some clearly surprised by the vehicle's roomy interior. It travelled at twice the speed of the more conventional vehicles it overtook, stirring up dust that perhaps tickled the noses of the horses pulling carriages steadily along the street.

It was the early 1900s, and the driver of this particular car was Thomas Edison. While electric cars weren't a novelty in the neighborhood, most of them relied on heavy and cumbersome lead-acid batteries. Edison had outfitted his car with a new type of battery that he hoped would soon be powering vehicles throughout the country: a nickel-iron battery. Building on the work of the Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner, who first patented a nickel-iron battery in 1899, Edison sought to refine the battery for use in automobiles.

Edison claimed the nickel-iron battery was incredibly resilient, and could be charged twice as fast as lead-acid batteries. He even had a deal in place with Ford Motors to produce this purportedly more efficient electric vehicle.

But the nickel-iron battery did have some kinks to work out. It was larger than the more widely used lead-acid batteries, and more expensive. Also, when it was being charged, it would release hydrogen, which was considered a nuisance and could be dangerous.