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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The electric eel inspired the first batteries two centuries ago and now points a way to future battery technologies

As the world’s need for large amounts of portable energy continues to grow at an ever-increasing pace, many innovators have sought to replace current battery technology with something better.

Italian physicist Alessandro Volta tapped into fundamental electrochemical principles when he invented the first battery in 1800. Essentially, a chemical reaction results from the physical bonding of two different materials, usually metals, that results in the flow of electrons from one material to another. That stream of electrons represents portable energy that can be used to generate electricity.

The first materials employed by people to make batteries were copper and zinc. Today’s best batteries – those that produce the highest power output at the smallest possible size – combine the metal lithium with one of many different metal compounds. There have been continual improvements over the centuries, but modern batteries rely on a strategy similar to Volta’s: materials are paired together that can trigger an electrochemical reaction and strip the electrons produced.

A lithograph from 1885 shows several species of electric fish.
ZU_09/DigitalVision Vector via Getty Images

But as I describe in my book “Spark: The Life of Electricity and the Electricity of Life,” before man-made batteries used electric current, electric fish, such as saltwater torpedo fish (torpedo torpedo) various freshwater electric eel species of the Mediterranean, and especially of South America (order gymnotiformes) were known to produce electricity of astonishing proportions. In fact, electric fishes inspired Volta to conduct the original research that eventually led to their batteries, and today’s battery scientists still look to these electrified animals for ideas.

Mimicking the electrical organ of an eel

Before Volta’s battery, the only way for people to generate electricity was to rub different materials together, usually silk on glass, and capture the resulting static electricity. This was neither an easy nor practical way to generate useful electrical power.

Volta knew that electric fish had an internal organ dedicated specifically to generating electricity. He reasoned that if he could mimic its workings, he might be able to find a new way of generating electricity.

Line drawing of 19th century man next to scientific instrument
Illustration of Alessandro Volta next to his battery stack.
PHOTOS.com via Getty Images Plus

The fish’s electrical organ is made up of long stacks of cells that look like a roll of coins. So Volta cut coin-like discs out of sheets of different materials and began stacking them in different orders, to see if he could find a combination that would generate electricity. These stacking experiments continued to yield negative results until they attempted to pair copper discs with zinc, while separating the stacked pairs from paper discs soaked in salt water.

This copper-zinc-paper sequence produced electricity, and the power output was proportional to the height of the pile. Volta thought he had uncovered the mystery of how eels generate their electricity and that he had actually created an artificial version of the fish’s electrical organ, so he initially called his discovery an “artificial electrical organ”. But it was not.

do eels actually electrify

Scientists now know that the electrochemical reactions between the different materials discovered by Volta have nothing to do with the way an electric eel generates its electricity. Instead, the eel uses an approach similar to the way our nerve cells generate their electrical signals, but on a much larger scale.

Specialized cells within the eel’s electrical organ pump ions across a semipermeable membrane barrier to generate an electric charge difference between inside versus outside the membrane. When the microscopic gates in the membrane open, the rapid flow of ions from one side of the membrane to the other generates an electric current. The eel is able to open all of its membrane gates simultaneously to generate a massive electric shock, which it releases in a targeted fashion at its prey.

Electric eels do not shock their prey; They stun it electrically before attacking. An eel can generate hundreds of volts of electricity (US household outlets are 110 volts), but the eel’s voltage doesn’t push out enough current (amperage) to kill it long enough. Each electrical pulse from an eel lasts only two thousandths of a second and delivers less than 1 amp. This is just 5% of the domestic amperage.

This is similar to how electric fences work, delivering very short pulses of high voltage electricity, but with far less amperage. They thus shock but do not kill bears or other animal intruders who try to get through them. It is similar to a modern taser electroshock weapon, which works by quickly delivering an extremely high-voltage pulse (about 50,000 volts) carrying very little amperage (just a few milliamps).

Modern attempts to imitate eels

Like Volta, some modern electromechanical scientists looking to replace battery technology find their inspiration in the electric eel.

A team of scientists from the United States and Switzerland is currently working on a new type of battery inspired by eels. They envision that their soft and flexible battery could someday be useful for powering medical implants and soft robots internally. But the team admits they have a long way to go. “The electrical organs in eels are incredibly sophisticated; they are far better at generating electricity than we are,” laments Michael Meyer, a team member at the University of Friborg. So, eel research continues.

man sitting in tuxedo
John Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino share the Nobel Prize for their work on the lithium-ion battery.
Jonathan Knackstrand / AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists who developed the lithium-ion battery. Presenting the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stressed that the work of the laureates “laid the foundation for a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”

The “wireless” part is certainly true, as lithium-ion batteries now power nearly all handheld wireless devices. We’ll have to wait and see about the claim of a “fossil fuel-free society,” as today’s lithium-ion batteries are often recharged with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. No mention was made of the contribution of the electric eel.

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Later that year, however, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution announced the discovery of a new South American species of electric eel; It is notably the strongest known bioelectric generator on Earth. The researchers recorded the single eel’s electrical discharge at 860 volts, well above the previous record-holding eel species, electrophorus electricusWhich was clocked at 650 volts, and 200 times the peak voltage of a single lithium-ion battery (4.2 volts).

Just as we humans try to congratulate ourselves on the greatness of our latest portable energy source, electric eels continue to humble us with theirs.

World Nation News Deskhttps://www.worldnationnews.com
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