Will Nickel-Iron Batteries Make a Come Back?

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Waldemar Junger invented two batteries in 1899 in Sweden. These used nickel-cadmium, and nickel-iron technology respectively. He soon discarded the latter without a patent, because hydrogen emission prevented him sealing it. In 1903, Thomas Edison obtained a patent for nickel-iron batteries with a view to commercializing them.

A Potted History of Nickel-Iron Batteries

nickel-iron batteries

Edison Nickel-Iron Battery: User:z22: CC 3.0

Thomas Edison hoped to replace lead-acid batteries in early electric cars with a more durable, lightweight alternative. However, customers found them prone to leaking and the idea did not catch on.

Henry Ford’s Model T gasoline car already had the high ground by the time Edison came up with a 1910 improvement. Although, his nickel-iron batteries proved effective in electric and diesel railways, headlamps for miners, and as backup in railroad crossing signals. Many railway vehicles still use them, including the New York City Subway car, and London Underground electric locomotives

The Amazing Sustainability of Nickel-Iron Batteries

nickel-iron batteries

New York City Subway: A E Moreira042281: CC 3.0

Nickel-iron batteries are exceptionally robust, may last for 20 years, and are able to shrug off over-charging, over-discharging, and short-circuiting. However, they have ceded their market to other technologies because of cost, low specific energy, and poor charge retention.

In 2012, Stanford engineers took a second look at the design. Surely, they reasoned, here is a possible solution for grid storage and electric cars. They succeeded in improving the design to the extent that nickel-iron batteries obtained new life in telephone exchanges. In the end, they had a faster product capable of charging and discharging in seconds, with no possibility of exploding or catching fire.

However, once again it seems other technology has put nickel-iron batteries on the back foot. Lithium-ion is performing well, solid-state batteries are on their way, and supercapacitors are entrenched in fast charge / fast discharge applications.

There are ongoing attempts to use them to make hydrogen for fuel cells. However, that too seems to remain an academic dream, at least for now.


Ernst Waldemar Jungner and his Portable Batteries

The Aspiration of Thomas Edison to Improve EV’s Batteries

Preview Image: Lancaster Gate Underground Station, London


About Author


I tripped over a shrinking bank balance and fell into the writing gig unintentionally. This was after I escaped the corporate world and searched in vain for ways to become rich on the internet by doing nothing. Despite the fact that writing is no recipe for wealth, I rather enjoy it. I will not deny I am obsessed with it when I have the time. My base is Umtentweni in South Africa on the Kwazulu-Natal South Coast. I work from home where I ponder on the future of the planet, and what lies beyond in the great hereafter. Sometimes I step out of my computer into the silent riverine forests, and empty golden beaches for which the area is renowned. Richard Farrell

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