The invention of the pile was made known to the scientific community by Volta himself, in a letter of 20 March 1800 addressed to the President of the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences, the Royal Society of London. The letter was then published in the prestigious journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, meaning Volta would go down in history as the father of this groundbreaking invention. Did you know that the Volt, the unit used to measure electric potential difference, takes its name from Alessandro Volta in honour of his great invention?
The evolution of the voltaic pile: the battery
While the pile was certainly a brilliant invention, it had a not insignificant problem: it could not be recharged. Therefore, once it had run out, the entire process had to be carried out again from the beginning. The potential was vast, however, and it is the farsightedness behind the concept of the pile that enabled this first prototype to evolve, transforming over time (after going through various different stages) into the battery we all know today.
Any discussion about batteries covers a whole world of different chemical elements, capacities and solutions developed to suit the specific needs of the most diverse applications, from industrial machinery and equipment to domestic and personal use.
The battery has undergone various different phases, from the now-outdated lead-acid battery to the most recent lithium-ion battery, available in myriad different chemicals, up to the even more advanced latest generation of batteries, such as the much-debated solid-state battery, which is still in the research phase. This constantly evolving technology will continue to shape our lives for many years to come, driven by continual technological advances and research aimed at making the battery ever more efficient.
The birth of lead-acid batteries
The first descendant of the voltaic pile was the lead-acid battery, the first version of this technology to really take off. The lead-acid battery was invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté and had an enormous advantage for its time: it was rechargeable, meaning that it could be used many times and, if necessary, restored to its full state of charge.
It initially consisted of two lead sheets rolled into a spiral, separated by a rubber strip and immersed in a glass jar of sulfuric acid electrolyte. This technology was perfected over time thanks to the intervention of chemical engineer Camille Alphonse Faure, who invented a much simpler version that could be mass produced. It consisted of a lead grid lattice, into which a lead oxide paste was pressed, forming a plate. Lead-acid batteries have since undergone further improvements, but have remained conceptually very close to the original prototype.
*[Fig.2] Structure of a lead-acid battery
Though still used in many internal combustion engine cars and some industrial vehicles, the lead-acid battery is now an obsolete choice that is extremely limited in terms of efficiency and performance, due in particular to its low energy density, severely limited life cycle, long recharge times and heavy weight, not to mention the fact that lead-acid batteries require constant maintenance to function at their best. In many sectors, therefore, such batteries have been gradually phased out, leaving room for the number one technology of the new millennium: lithium batteries.