The Humble but Mighty Alkaline Battery: Then and Now

Enerpoly owes the fundamentals of its new battery technology to Lewis Urry’s discovery of the primary zinc-manganese dioxide battery cell. Here, we dive into the history of this unsung hero in the annals of energy storage.
Lewis Urry holding an alkaline battery
Lewis Urry holding an alkaline battery
Mylad Chamoun with Enerpoly battery prototype
Mylad Chamoun with Enerpoly battery prototype

In the mid twentieth century, zinc-manganese dioxide alkaline batteries transformed consumer electronics. Before the development of safe, long-lasting cells, energy storage was regarded as tedious and unwieldy, consisting of industrial style batteries unsuited for consumer devices. Zinc-carbon, the primary portable cells in the market at the time, suffered from a short life which hampered sales and limited usefulness. While scientists had long experimented with cells in alkaline conditions, no one had found the right combination of materials for a small, heavy-duty battery that would be worth the expense.

The Discovery

In 1949, Canadian scientist Lewis Urry, a chemical engineer working for Eveready, was tasked with finding a way to improve zinc-carbon batteries. The engineer described the problem to the Washington Times as, “Toys were coming out that ran on batteries, but they didn’t sell well because the carbon batteries on the market died after a few minutes’ use.”

There were no compact, long-discharging batteries to power toys and similar objects. During his testing, Urry discovered that manganese dioxide and solid zinc foil worked well in alkaline conditions, but the cells were still not storing enough energy. However, when he switched to powdered zinc to increase the surface area, the engineer made a breakthrough, creating a prototype that was more powerful with a longer storage life yet was small enough for functionality.

With a flair for showmanship, Urry bought two battery-operated model cars and put a standard D-cell in one and his new prototype in the other. He raced the models in front of the whole cafeteria and R.L. Glover, the Eveready Vice President of Technology. “Our car went several lengths of this long cafeteria,” Urry told the Associated Press. “The other car barely moved. Everybody was coming out of their labs to watch. They were all oohing and ahhing and cheering.”

Glover took Urry’s battery to a company executive in New York, pitting it against a standard cell in a flashlight. The next morning, only the alkaline-powered light was still shining. “That was it,” Urry later told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “At that point, the whole lab was put on the alkaline project.”

Eveready went on to launch the commercial product in 1959, eventually re-branding it as Energizer. This new battery technology dominated zinc-carbon cells with their much higher capacity and power capability, producing about 3 to 5 times the energy of a dry zinc-carbon cell of the same size.

Reigning in The Age of the Electronic Device

This invention of the long-life alkaline battery – a cheap and reliable product – spurred a revolution in the development of portable consumer devices. Alkaline battery cells could now be used to power devices like the Walkman, cordless razors, remotes, flashlights, and other household appliances and office equipment. The advantages of cost-effectiveness, safety, and compact size enabled alkaline batteries to even into the mid-2010s, well over 60 years after their invention. On average, it’s estimated nearly every person in the world uses about 7–8 units of alkaline batteries a year. The proliferation of electronics that came from these batteries has transformed our society and how we value the mobility of energy storage. Indeed, the Smithsonian Institution in the United States displays Urry’s alkaline battery prototype and commercial-type cells in the same room as Edison’s light bulb. 

Disposable zinc-manganese dioxide batteries have stood the test of time for the past century due to their affordability, versatility, and functionality. As zinc and manganese dioxide are abundant materials with stable supply chains and established recycling infrastructure, raw material availability has not been a barrier to alkaline battery proliferation. These batteries are also safe and are declared non-hazardous in many countries, making them the obvious choice for children’s toys and household items.

A significant drawback to these zinc-manganese dioxide batteries however is that they cannot be recharged, limiting them to a single use. Even though they were the more affordable and non-toxic option, zinc-based batteries never gained traction for use in automobiles. Instead, lead acid batteries came to dominate the automobile and motive markets as car batteries need to constantly be recharged by the alternator. Similarly, today, non-rechargeable alkaline batteries are again being precluded from use in the stationary storage of electricity, for example, in behind-the-meter applications.

The Future of the Zinc-Manganese Dioxide Battery

Similar to Urry’s now legendary decision to implement powdered zinc half a century ago, Enerpoly’s research breakthroughs make traditional alkaline battery materials rechargeable. Enerpoly’s discovery allows the humble zinc-manganese dioxide cell to be used in more applications while keeping the characteristics that allowed alkaline batteries their dominancy: affordability, safety, and sustainability.

Today, the battery market is poised for a similar transformation as in the 1950s. Parallel to the situation last century where there was a dire need for economical, portable, long-lasting energy storage to power the electronics of the time, there is a market need today for inexpensive, sustainable, and safe batteries that can propel the transition to clean, renewable energy.  Affordable and sustainable rechargeable batteries like Enerpoly’s batteries can be used in residential, commercial, grid, and EV charging applications. For example, they can make developing an EV charging network feasible by reducing demand charges and cutting charging station costs by 70%. Cost-effective battery technology can also solve the intermittency problem challenging renewable energy implementation by providing inexpensive load management and high return on investment to residential, commercial, and grid-scale energy storage systems.

The market opportunity for rechargeable zinc-manganese dioxide batteries is huge. Renewable power is expected to overtake fossil fuels and be the major source of power generation by 2030. Stationary storage needs to sustainably scale 17-fold by 2030 to meet this growing global demand and ensure the reliability of a grid powered by renewables. Energy storage must also be economically feasible to allow for installations. This is especially the case for residential- and commercial-scale energy storage as these sectors represent the majority of global energy consumption. For example, residential and commercial buildings accounted for 40% of all energy consumption in the United States in 2020.

Rechargeable zinc-manganese dioxide batteries can leverage the existing alkaline battery supply chains, recycling infrastructure, and industry manufacturing methods. They are perfectly suited to claiming the lion’s share of the stationary battery market just as their predecessor, alkaline batteries, did in the past 60 years.

The Humble but Mighty Alkaline Battery: Then and Now
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