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Early Voltaic Batteries: an Evaluation in Modern Units and Application to the Work of Davy and Faraday

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Classic voltaic batteries of the silver/zinc and copper/zinc types are the ancestors of today's primary cells, and facilitated the development of many aspects of electrical technology. Nevertheless, they appear never to have been studied and evaluated in a quantitative manner, with results recorded in terms of volts, amps, ohms, and watts. Research of this nature is reported here, and has been conducted for the most part with copper/zinc cells. Log-log graphs of voltage versus load and current, and power versus load, are presented for many electrolyte systems. It has been shown that, although the textbook electrolyte of dilute sulphuric acid does work, it is an order of magnitude inferior to a solution containing some additional nitric acid. The latter diminishes the current-limiting phenomenon of polarization, and was in fact used by Davy, Faraday, and other early investigators. A quantitative consideration of Nicholson and Carlisle's discovery of the electrolysis of water with a silver/zinc voltaic pile is followed by examination of the electrolysis of pure water, trough batteries, and Davy's isolation of potassium and sodium. Every battery gives maximum power when its resistance is adjusted (by appropriate series/parallel connections) to match the resistance of the load: the maximum output of the 'Great Battery' of the Royal Institution is assessed at no more than 3 kW. The paper concludes with a note on the recognized hazard of long-term exposure to mercury vapour (produced by amalgamation of zinc electrodes in batteries) and its possible relevance to the health of Michael Faraday.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Physics and Astronomy University of Leicester Leicester LE1 7RH UK

Publication date: 2003-10-01

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