He moved at twice the speed of the more conventional cars he overtook, raising dust that, perhaps, would tickle the nose of horses pulling carriages down the street.
Watch a video of AutoSporte about an electric car for ice.
An electric car for ice skating. Better to stick to the ice.
It was the early 1900s, and the driver of this particular car was Thomas Edison. Although electric cars were not new in the neighborhood, most of them depended on heavy lead-acid batteries.
Edison equipped his car with a new type of battery and hoped that vehicles across the country would soon use it: a nickel-iron battery.
Based on the work of Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner, who was the first to patent a nickel-iron battery in 1899, Edison dedicated himself to improving the battery for use in automobiles.
What used to be a dangerous peculiarity of Thomas Edison’s drums turned out to be extremely useful – Photo: Alamy / Via BBC
The American inventor stated that the nickel-iron battery was iIncredibly sturdy and could charge twice as fast as lead-acid batteries.
He even had an agreement with Ford Motors to produce this supposedly more efficient electric vehicle.
Conventional electrolysers are used to convert renewable energy into hydrogen, but Mulder hopes the battolyser can do this more efficiently and cheaply – Photo: Getty Images / Via BBC
But the nickel-iron battery had some issues that needed to be resolved. It was bigger than the most widely used and most expensive lead-acid batteries.
In addition, when it was being charged, it released hydrogen, which was considered a nuisance and could be dangerous.
The ‘battolyser’ is a way to help balance the supply and demand of renewable energy – Photo: Alamy / Via BBC
Unfortunately, at the time that Edison managed to perfect the prototype, electric vehicles were going out of line in favor of fossil fuel vehicles, able to travel longer distances before needing to refuel or reload.
Edison’s deal with Ford Motors fell by the wayside, although his battery continued to be used in certain niches, such as for railway signaling, where its bulky size was not an obstacle.
However, more than a century later, engineers rediscovered the nickel-iron battery as a kind of rough diamond.
It is now being studied as a response to a persistent challenge for renewable energies: smoothing out the intermittent nature of clean energy sources, such as wind and solar.
And hydrogen, once considered a worrying by-product, may prove to be one of the most useful aspects of these batteries.
In mid-2010, a research team at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands came across a use for the nickel-iron battery based on the hydrogen produced.
Thomas Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey was the birthplace of many of his inventions – Photo: Getty Images / Via BBC
When electricity passes through the battery when it is recharged, it undergoes a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen and oxygen.
The team acknowledged that the reaction is similar to the one used to release hydrogen into water, known as electrolysis.
“It seemed to me that the chemistry was the same,” says Fokko Mulder, leader of the research team at the University of Delft.
This water-splitting reaction is a way in which hydrogen is produced for use as a fuel – and a completely clean fuel, as long as the energy used to drive the reaction is from a renewable source.
Although Mulder and his team knew that the electrodes in the nickel-iron battery were capable of dividing water, they were surprised to see that the electrodes began to have greater energy storage than before hydrogen was produced.
In other words, it became a better battery when it was also used as an electrolyser.
They were also amazed to see how the electrodes resisted electrolysis well, which can overload and degrade more traditional batteries.
“And, of course, we were quite satisfied with the fact that energy efficiency looks good during all of this,” says the researcher, reaching levels of 80-90%.
Mulder called his creation a battolyser, and hopes his discovery can help solve two major challenges for renewable energy: energy storage and, when batteries are charged, clean fuel production.
“You will hear arguments in favor of batteries, on the one hand, and hydrogen, on the other,” says Mulder.
“There has always been a kind of competition between the two, but basically we need both.”
One of the biggest challenges facing renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, is how unpredictable and intermittent they can be.
In the case of solar, for example, you have a surplus of energy produced during the day and in the summer, but at night and in the winter months, supply decreases.
Conventional batteries, such as lithium-based ones, can store energy in the short term, but when they are fully charged, they need to release any excess or they can overheat and degrade.
The nickel-iron battolyser, on the other hand, remains stable when it is fully charged, at which point it can transition to produce hydrogen.
“[Baterias de níquel-ferro] they are resilient, being able to withstand insufficient charge and overcharge better than other batteries, “says John Barton, an associate researcher at the School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering at Loughborough University, UK, who also studies the battolyser.
“With the production of hydrogen, the battolyser adds energy storage for several days and even between seasons.”
In addition to creating hydrogen, nickel-iron batteries have other useful characteristics.
First, they require exceptionally low maintenance. They are extremely durable, as Edison proved in his first electric car, and some are known to last for more than 40 years.
The metals needed to make the battery – nickel and iron – are also more common than, say, cobalt, used to produce conventional batteries.
This means that the battolyser can play another possible role when it comes to renewable energy: helping it become more profitable.
As in any other sector, renewable energy prices fluctuate based on supply and demand.
On a clear and sunny day, there can be an abundance of solar energy, which can lead to an excess and a drop in the price at which the energy can be sold. The battolyser, however, can help smooth out these ups and downs.
“When the price of electricity is high, you can discharge the battery, but when the price of electricity is low, you can charge the battery and produce hydrogen,” explains Mulder.
The battolyser is not alone in this respect. More traditional alkaline electrolysers, coupled with batteries, can also perform this function and are widely used in the hydrogen production industry.
But Mulder believes that the battolyser can do the same for less money and for longer, thanks to the system’s durability. It leaves the defenders of the new discovery hopeful.
And although hydrogen is the direct product of the battolyser, other useful substances can also be generated from it, such as ammonia or methanol, which are usually easier to store and transport.
“With a battolyser installed, [uma] ammonia plant would work more constantly and [precisaria] less labor, reducing operating and maintenance costs, producing ammonia in the cheapest way in a green, sustainable way “, says Hans Vrijenhoef, executive director of Proton Ventures, who invested in the Mulder battolyser.
Currently, the largest battolyser that exists is 15kW / 15kWh and has a battery with sufficient capacity and long-term hydrogen storage to supply 1.5 households.
A larger version of a 30kW / 30kWh battolyser is being developed at the Magnum power station in Eemshaven, the Netherlands, where it will supply enough hydrogen to meet the plant’s needs.
After undergoing rigorous tests there, the goal is to further expand its scale, and distribute the battolyser to green energy producers, such as wind and solar parks.
Finally, defenders of the battolyser expect it to reach a scale of gigawatts – equivalent to the energy generated by about 400 wind turbines of public utility.
But Barton also sees a role for smaller battolysers, who could help supply power to mini-nets used by remote communities that are not part of the main grid.
The fact that the battolyser electrodes are made of relatively cheap and common metals can help. And, unlike lithium, nickel and iron do not generate large amounts of waste water when extracted, nor are they related to significant environmental degradation.
Still, both Mulder and Barton see obstacles to be overcome in terms of efficiency and capacity.
“The battolyser would really benefit from increasing energy capacity as a battery, or from reducing internal resistance,” says Barton.
Internal resistance is the opposition to the current flow in a battery. The higher the internal resistance, the lower the efficiency. Improving this is something that Mulder and his team are working on right now.
Much of the battolyser’s potential was hidden from view since Thomas Edison began experimenting with his nickel-iron battery at the turn of the 20th century.
He may have been mistaken in believing that his battery would replace the other vehicles on the road. But the nickel-iron battery can still play a role in replacing fossil fuels more broadly, helping to accelerate the transition to renewable energies.
See G1’s most watched videos
Get the latest news delivered to your inbox
Follow us on social media networks