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Small in Size, Big on Power: The Evolution of Automotive Battery Technology

Somi Massoud

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The technology of the automotive battery has not only been the core of the automobile but the major influencer for a number of changes in the automotive industry.

The history of the automotive battery stretches over a century of interesting designs and eras.

What started it all? What is the future of the automotive battery?

Today we dive deep into automotive history and see what we find.

Mechanic changing car battery

Where it All Began

What we know as the automotive battery started with the invention of the lead-acid battery in 1859 by French physician Gaston Planté. This developed over the decades into the automotive battery that is more in line with what we know today.

As the first cars started to spring up going into the 20th century, the lead-acid battery was the key. The bizarre part was most of the cars at the time were electric. 

Due to the manual crank starting of gas-powered combustion engines, the ease of the electric cars made them much more viable.

It wasn't until the mass produced and reliable Model T from Ford came along did electric vehicles start to decline.

The ironic end to the electric vehicle was the invention of the electric starter. This marked the end to one of the biggest disparities between gas powered and electric cars.

All the while, the lead-acid automotive battery remained the core. 

The Important Elements

Despite the lack of real development on the lead-acid battery, it held up the core of the automotive due to its simple practicality. 

The development of better roads and the discovery of oil around the world drove the gas-powered car to succeed. The second irony was the accessories pushing this car forward soon became electric. 

Built around the lead-acid battery, there have been many accessories and ideas that advanced the automobile by leaps and bounds. 

These are a few of the most potent that changed the face of the industry.

1. Electric Starters

Charles F. Kettering patented the electric starter and Cadillac implemented it in 1912. 

Soon many companies, Ford included, added this invention to their gas-powered cars. By 1919, most gas-powered cars not only implemented this potent starter but had standardized its implementation alongside the lead-acid battery.

The key to an electric starter is creating that initial spark that ramps up the internal combustion engine. Before electric starters, many engines had to be hand-cranked, which was tiresome and even dangerous at times.

Once the electric starter has done its job, the battery takes its place to provide the power the vehicle needs. 

2. The Alternator 

The alternator acts as a second source of power to a car's more minor accessories. The first ideas of the alternators were simple electric dynamos.

As many car models took on more and more electrical components to improve the variety of car functions, the need and power of these alternators increased.

Soon the alternators had grown to power the ignition system, headlights, windshield wipers, electric locks, and many others. 

The alternator's creation and design complemented the lead-acid battery and prolonged its lifespan. Alternators use AC current to make a stronger voltage that lasts and goes further.

3. The Key Ignition System

First developed in 1949, the key ignition system allowed users to start their car in a safe, easy, and fast manner. 

Before the key ignition system, a car owner would start their car through a complicated process that risked flooding the engine.

There would be a special starter pedal to the right of the accelerator. By pressing down the starter pedal, accelerator, and brake all at once and in a certain manner, the car would start.

The process had complications in spades and could damage the car.

The Lead-Acid Battery Design

Despite the many changes to cars over the last century, the automotive battery has changed very little. 

The original design created in the mid 19th century had a variety of tweaks and improvements to let it be big and strong enough to power a car. Over the decades since, the majority of its changes had been small tweaks to size and power.

Two major changes did occur to the battery design over the century of use.

The first occurred in the 1950s. The electric systems of a car transitioned from six volts to twelve volts, so manufacturers altered the batteries to match.

The second, and more major, change came in the 1970s. The lead-acid battery had a major redesign called the sealed car battery. This had a protective casing around it, which protected against rust and corrosion.

The sealed car battery also did not require regular water intake like the previous incarnations. This meant less personal maintenance and gave cars even more personal freedom out on the road. 

The Automotive Battery of Today and Tomorrow

The sealed car battery designed has been, for the most part, unchanged since the 1970s. The lead-acid battery still remains the main automotive battery design in the automotive industry to this day.

Another major change has been gathering momentum. With the concerns over oil product usage and its environmental impact, the electric car has made a return. 

The lithium-ion battery is fast on its way to becoming a dominant feature in the automotive industry.

While there are still some tweaks to its design for automotive use, it may even one day usurp the lead-acid battery of old.

Electric cars still have a ways to go to be the powerhouse to overtake the traditional gas-powered cars. Most of that has to do with infrastructure, with electric charging stations in a fraction of the numbers as regular gasoline stations.

Though, as history has taught us, gas-powered vehicles used to have a major lack of gasoline stations in the infancy of the automobile. There is still a lot of time for a potential change.

Powering the Future

The history, and future, of the automotive battery has quite a few gems that we can learn from. The changes and potential in the future of batteries can lead to any number of other technologies.

For the past, present, and future of batteries, we here at RB Battery leads the way in all the battery applications you could need. Learn more about us today!