The Niagara Gorge was the "silicone valley" of the late 1800's. Discussed at length in the tour, in summary, there was so much power to be gleaned from the falling water using hydroelectric generators that large industries swarmed to take advantage of that. However, the question begs, what did people use for electricity before the use of generators? The answer is batteries. In this blog I will tell you a little about the history of the battery, how it is made and used, and the procurement and discardment of metals used in them.
Alessandro Volta (his full name was a mouth full; Alessandro Guiseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta) invented the first battery around the year 1800. The battery was made out of silver and zinc plates separated by brine-soaked paper or cloth disks that produced an electric current. This first battery only lasted about 1 hour, but many succeeding developments quickly improved its performance. One of the first major advances permitted by this new invention was the telegraph machine, starting the industrial revolution. By the mid 19th century the first electric cars were made. They needed recharging about every 80km, and their top speed was only about 40km/hr, therefore by the 1900s car manufacturers were transitioning to combustion engines that could go faster, had more power, and didn't need long recharges.
What about e-bikes you may ask, since you are reading the blog of a bicycle tour company 😜. You might be surprised to learn that the first battery powered e-bikes were already invented before the turn of the century. Those bikes had a 10 volt battery and even had a rear brake (you may recall from one of my previous blog posts that brakes on regular bicycles were a very late development). They were incredibly heavy, and not popular.
Throughout the 20th century battery manufacturers experimented with many different metals to make batteries much more portable and longer lasting. The first lithium batteries appeared in the market in the 1990's and allowed for a revolution in handheld devices. Lithium has the highest energy density and voltage capacity of any metal, it is the most efficient and safe battery material. In addition to lithium most batteries contain a mix of cobalt, copper, aluminum, manganese, and nickel to create a brine for energy transfer. The nobel prize in chemistry was even awarded to three people (John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino) elemental in its design in 2019. Lithium is the The lithium-ion batteries now used in cars last 10-20 years, although they deteriorate quicker in very cold and very hot climates. When you recycle a lithium battery the different metals are separated through complicated processes of mechanic separation, leaching, heating, electrochemical precipitation, and more. Although the process is complicated and energy intensive it is better than mining for more.
Many large mining companies mine for several metals at the same time, for example a silver mine will likely also mine zinc, lead, gold, copper and others. Some of the largest mines are in China, Australia, USA, Canada, and Chile. The global mining industry is growing quickly; In 2021 it was valued at 2.01 trillion and in 2022 it was already 2.15 trillion. This is largely due to initiatives such as those created by COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference) where in 2021 32 countries declared to transition to having only fully electric cars on the road by 2040.
In summary, batteries were a revolutionary invention but few every day users, such as cyclists on an e-bike, stop to consider how it got there and where it will go next. Who knows, with the explosive popularity of batteries perhaps a new "silicone valley" will spring up again elsewhere in the world. Our first valley was all about power in the form of generators, the second was about media, and maybe the third will be mining. What do you think?
History of battery - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_batterymining markets;https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-global-mining-market-is-boosted-to-grow-to-2-trillion-by-the-ongoing-russia-ukraine-war-301530238.html
Lithium battery - https://www.tennantco.com/en_ca/blog/2019/11/lithium-ion-battery-benefits.html
Lithium recycling - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fchem.2020.578044/full#:~:text=These%20processes%20usually%20include%20disassembly,extraction%20and%20chemical%2Felectrochemical%20precipitation
Electric car history - https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g15378765/worth-the-watt-a-brief-history-of-the-electric-car-1830-to-present/