The Story Of Electric Vehicle Batteries

The Tesla 2170 Lithium-Ion battery cell and other high capacity lithium-ion battery cell technologies all represent the first hopeful steps in transitioning society towards a new standard in practical and economical transportation via electric vehicles.


The modern incarnation of the electrochemical battery is credited to the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, who put together the first battery in response to the misguided findings of his colleague, Luigi Galvani. Volta suspected that the electric current came from the two dissimilar metals and it was being transmitted through the frogs’ tissues, not originating from it. Volta had developed the first electrochemical battery, known as a voltaic pile.

Individual cells can be combined into configurations that can both increase the total voltage and current capacity. This is known as a battery. On primary batteries, the electrodes become depleted as they release their positive or negative ions into the electrolyte, or the build-up of reaction products on the electrodes prevents the reaction from continuing. This results in a one-time use battery.

In secondary batteries, the chemical reaction that occurred during discharge can be reversed.


In 1859, the French physicist Gaston Planté would invent the lead-acid battery, the first-ever battery that could be recharged. By the 1880s, the lead-acid battery would take on a more practical form with each cell consisting of interlaced plates of lead and lead dioxide.

In the early 1900s, the electric vehicle began to grow in popularity in the United States, after thriving in Europe for over 15 years. Within a few years, most electric vehicle manufacturers had ceased production.


In the late 1960s, research had begun by the global communications company COMSAT, on a relatively new battery chemistry called nickel-hydrogen. Designed specifically for use on satellites, probes, and other space vehicles, these batteries used hydrogen stored at up to 82 bar with a nickel oxide hydroxide cathode and a platinum-based catalyst anode that behaved similarly to a hydrogen fuel cell. The pressure of hydrogen would decrease as the cell is depleted offering a reliable indicator of the batteries charge.

Though nickel-hydrogen batteries offered only a slightly better energy storage capacity than lead-acid batteries, their service life exceeded 15 years and they had a cycle durability exceeding 20,000 charge/recharge cycles. By the early 1980s their use on space vehicles became common. Over the next two decades research into nickel-metal hydride cell technology was supported heavily by both Daimler-Benz and by Volkswagen AG resulting in the first generation of batteries achieving storage capacities similar to nickel-hydrogen, though with a 5 fold increase in specific power. This breakthrough led to the first consumer-grade nickel-metal hydride batteries to become commercially available in 1989.


Almost 100 years after the first golden age of electric vehicles, a confluence of several factors reignited interest in electric vehicles once again. This initiative intersected with the recent refinement of nickel-metal hydride battery technology, making practical electrical vehicles a viable commercial option to pursue. By the late 1990s, mass-market electric vehicle production had started once again. Taking a more risk-averse approach, many automakers started to develop all-electric models based on existing platforms in their model line up.


Despite lithium-ion batteries becoming a viable option for electric vehicles, the second half of the 1990s into the mid-2000s were primarily dominated by the more risk-averse technology of hybrid-powered vehicles. And even these successful early models such as the Toyota Prius were generally still powered by Nickel-metal hydride battery technology.

At the time lithium-ion batteries were still relatively unproven for vehicle use and also cost more per kWh. Around 2010, The cathode material of lithium-ion cells would once evolve with the advent of lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide cathodes or NMC. Curiously, Tesla is known for being the only manufacturer who does not use NMC cell technology but rather much older lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide cathode, or NCA.


With the surge in consumer adoption of electric vehicles, comes a rise in the demand for the lithium-ion batteries that power them. While roughly half of the cobalt produced is currently used for batteries, the metal also has important uses in electronics, tooling, and superalloys like those used in jet turbines. More than half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With no state regulation, cobalt mining in the region is also plagued with exploitative practices.


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49 Replies to “The Story Of Electric Vehicle Batteries”

  1. New Mind

    This is just a consolidated re-upload of my two-part episode on electric vehicle batteries. It was initially supposed to be a single video, but due to it taking a month to produce I was forced to initially split it up in order to keep the algorithm happy with timely uploads. 😛

  2. Ihab Fahmy

    At around 22minutes 30 sec: narrator says 300 km is 125 miles, which is incorrect. Let's stop using the inferior and infuriating imperial units system. We're just letting our habits rule over our better judgement

  3. g0mhc

    1:38 into video and that with annoying music muffling your speech, I switched off.
    No matter how interesting the topic supposedly background music forces me to turn off.
    By the way when was the last time you attended a lecture that had music droning on in the background?

  4. Bart De Bie

    Electricity is everywhere. The earth’s electrical field has been known for centuries. Lightning and St. Elmo’s fire are the most dramatic manifestations of atmospheric electricity. But the field doesn’t exist just in the vicinity of these events; it’s everywhere.

    The earth is an electrical conductor. So is the ionosphere, the layer of ionized gas about 70 kilometers over our heads. The air between is a rather poor insulator. Some mechanism not yet explained constantly pumps large quantities of charged particles into the air. The charged particles cause an electrical field. Although it varies widely, strength of the field averages 120v per meter.

    You can measure this voltage with an earth-field antenna—a wire with a sharp point at the top to start a corona discharge, or with a bit of radioactive material that ionizes the air in its immediate vicinity. Near the earth, voltage is proportional to altitude; on an average day you might measure 1,200 volts with a 10-meter antenna.

    Dr. Oleg Jefimenko invented an earth-field-antennae connected to an advanced corona discharge electrostatic motor which can convert the energy of the earth’s electrical field into continuous mechanical motion.

    Wouldn’t it be fun if there was a Tesla car that runs on charges similar to those that make your hair stand on end when you comb it on a cold winter’s day?

  5. Gareth Baus

    I have always wondered how different our world would be if henry ford developed a cheap reliable electric car rather than gasoline. Assuming that car was popular it would probably be safe to also assume that battery technology would already be at about the point we will hit in 20 to 30 years although emissions technology for power generation might be a bit behind current levels.

  6. Carl Swenson

    The best batteries we have are still less than 1/4 as energy dense as diesel fuel. Until this issue is solved, electric vehicles will never be a suitable replacement for commercial vehicles. If you live somewhere where it snows, chances are you wont ever see an electric plow-truck in your lifetime. Same goes for garbage trucks, moving trucks, fire trucks and ambulances.

  7. Eric Pham

    Battery is tactical nuclear weapon but only for stupid because internet is so hard to remote control but if it straight shot it can detonate billion battery at once if not end the world, atleast it could delay people meals atleast 70 days world wide to replace billion batteries is very costly

  8. Bob Thompson

    john b goodenough is a very important figure in battery development hes working on solid state batterys now and it will make a car good from 400 miles to 1500 miles maybe more. i wonder what mileage a hybrid will get with a solid state battery. He is why your phone has a battery, your laptop also and any lithium ion battery.

  9. Chris Jager

    Lithium is more abundant in Earth's crust than lead, and 10 times more abundant than tin. If bronze age people could build their society around hand-mined tin+copper, I'm sure we can find as much lithium as we need, should the price ever increase enough to make mining it profitable.

  10. Gostandinos Theodossiou

    Dirty Secret: Manufacturing Them Leaves Massive Carbon Footprint. Once in operation, electric cars certainly reduce your carbon footprint, but making the lithium-ion batteries could emit 74% more CO2 than for conventional cars.

  11. Game Plux

    Instead of charging the car just sale the battery in gas station and return the depleted battery to be charge and be sale to other ppl who run out of charge and resell it fully charge w/quality control. Soon in future they might srink the battery.. Instead of recharging it with toyota generator out of nowhere.

  12. Itsjustme

    As current as this is I'm surprised quantum glass batteries weren't discussed as a possible future technology that might bring about substantial improvement.

  13. Bob Holland

    I hate to tell you this but those old electric cars those were not lead acid batteries those were nickel-iron. and there's a whole bunch of them out there that still work I know two people that have them.

  14. David Milner

    Excellent explanation and very clearly scripted. The music track tends to be overly loud especially close to the end. Realistically science /engineering subjects don't really benefit from the use of music. Library music is costly and very repetitive and no cost tracks are usually pretty bad. Anyway thanks for the very well researched video

  15. Neil Bain

    NiFe batteries: weren't they a 19th C answer to NiCd? They are remarkably indestructible. NiFe batts run on KaOH and have been pulled out of the sunken WW1 German fleet Scapa Flow after many decades and still found to be workable when refilled with alkali. They were used as military power supplies and are favoured by off grid people who generate their own power. I don't know if they were any good for vehicle power, but they will have been tried surely around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.
    i I had an old miner's lamp run I ran off NaOH as it was all I had. It was rated at 1.5volts and It held a charge for a short period- a few hours, but it had dried out years before so was probably quite oxidised inside- or gunged up generally.

  16. Jon Doe

    If only we could separate hydrogen from water we could have an engine that ran on water. Wait a second?? Let's just re invent the wheel that's better….

  17. Nils Randers-Pehrson

    Your videos are good. Very good, but please shut off the music. If I want music along with the video I can turn on a radio or have spotify play in the background. The music is ONLY a distracting element in videos like this. It is presumably an informative video you want to make? Well, then shut the music off. Please.

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