The Voltaic Pile: Building The First Battery

In the technologically-underpinned modern world, most of us interact with a battery of some sort every day. Whether that’s the starter battery in a car, the lithium battery in a phone, or even just the coin cell battery in a wrist watch, batteries underpin a lot of what makes society possible now. Not so in the early 1800s when chemists and physicists were first building and experimenting with batteries. And those batteries were enormous, non-rechargable, and fairly fragile to boot. Not something suited for powering much of anything, but if you want to explore what it would have been like to use one of these devices, follow along with [Christopher]’s build of a voltaic pile.

The voltaic pile is historically constructed using discs of alternating zinc and copper paired with an acidic electrolyte, but this build uses much more convenient metallic strips instead of larger discs. Tissues are used to facilitate absorption of the electrolyte solution, and a 3D-printed case is used to help hold everything together, with a spring mechanism built-in which keeps pressure on the alternating metallic strips. The electrolyte is nothing more than salt water here, which transports the ions from one end of the battery through the circuit to the other. With everything assembled in the 3D printed case, the voltaic pile creates almost 3 volts, although [Christopher] notes it should be making closer to 5 volts but there’s likely an internal short somewhere.

While voltaic piles don’t have much use anymore due to their limitations, [Christopher] intended this build to be used more of an educational demonstration than a practical application. It’s much easier to build this one than a more historically accurate one as well, and the use of springs and 3D printed parts means that it could be made to have a larger or smaller voltage by simply adding or removing cells within the pile. It’s also similar to the lemon or potato battery, the latter of which we’ve actually seen put to practical use in this 12V potato battery pack.

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