Tiny and Huge: The New Batteries that Don’t Look Like Batteries

We don’t normally think of batteries as being particularly large objects. This is because we’re simply better acquainted with the small cylindrical or box-shaped batteries that we use around the home. And these types of batteries aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Indeed, much of the new battery technology that is fast taking the consumer market by storm are still in the familiar AA, AAA, or 9V shape. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the guiding motto of consumer batteries. For decades, batteries have taken a familiar shape, and even today innovative technologies such as the USB rechargeable lithium-ion smart batteries produced by Pale Blue Earth out of Utah still come in the old, familiar forms. Sure, we are aware of the large mattress-shaped li-ion batteries powering the electric vehicle revolution but, generally speaking, batteries simply look like batteries in the minds of most people. 

But will this always be the case? One of the most fascinating things about new battery technology is that it is producing products that range from looking a little unusual for a battery to looking absolutely nothing like one. Batteries have been around for an awfully long time – over two hundred years, in fact – and for all that time they have not been defined by their shape, their composition, or even their design. Instead, the only thing that makes a battery a battery is that it is something that stores energy for release on demand. We are all familiar with those amusing classroom experiments where a battery is created from a few wires and two pieces of fruit. That alone should demonstrate that almost anything can be a battery. 

The Largest Battery in the World

Many mistakenly believe that the largest battery in the world is the li-ion battery hooked up to the southern California power grid and which can provide 250 million watts of power and keeps the lights of 250,000 Californian households on. While this behemoth is certainly impressive, it would perhaps be better termed the biggest battery that looks like a battery. The real largest battery in the world is also situated in California – and it is a lake. 

That’s right, the largest battery in the world is actually Pyramid Lake near the town of Castaic. How can a lake be a battery? Well, keep in mind that a battery is actually anything that stores energy for release on demand – and that’s exactly what this lake does. 

Or – more accurately – that is what these two lakes do. One of the two bodies of water is higher than the other one. When water is moved by pumps from the lower lake to the higher one, this gives the water itself gravitational potential energy. At times of peak demand, this water then flows downhill, spins turbines as it goes, and produces electricity. 

The Smallest Battery in the World 

The smallest battery in the world is, as you might expect, totally invisible. The human eye is not particularly adept at seeing things like bacteria, so what chance does it have of seeing a battery six times thinner than those microbial organisms. 

Yet these nano-batteries are currently going through a period of energetic development and research. A properly futuristic prospect, nano batteries could be used to implant tiny computers inside biological organisms, or even power cameras small enough to examine single cells. The potential of such batteries is enormous, particularly within the medical field where the ability to collect data and power devices at the very smallest scale could be revolutionary. 

Whether a massive geological feature or a microscopic speck, batteries are beginning to look weird.

Pritam Chakrabortty
Pritam Chakrabortty
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