News & Analysis

Lewis Urry – energy revolutionist

8th April 2024
Harry Fowle

TME takes a look at Lewis Urry, the “Father of Alkaline,” and perfecter of galvanic cells.

Lewis Urry, who made history by perfecting the invention of Alessandro Volta, was born on 29 January 1927 in Pontypool, Canada. As early as in the 18th century, Alessandro Volta developed the prototype of galvanic cells which, in their zinc-carbon version, were a popular, though not very efficient source of energy until the mid-20th century, when Lewis Urry had just entered the world of engineering.

Urry graduated from the University of Toronto in 1950, specialising in chemical technology and process engineering. He quickly found a job in a branch of Union Carbide, a company that manufactured Eveready brand zinc-carbon batteries. He ended up in the R&D department, where he was assigned the task of increasing the efficiency of batteries. Due to their characteristics, zinc-carbon cells are well suited for powering small circuits with low power consumption. However, they do not cope with more frequently used devices such as toys or portable radios, where batteries need to be replaced frequently. Urry was asked to change this state of affairs.

Lewis Urry and alkaline batteries

The Canadian engineer has taken a rather unusual step to improve battery efficiency. This is because he decided that it was not worthwhile to work on improving the quality of the existing solutions, and something completely new should be created instead. Urry was convinced that other materials could be used in the design process. He eventually came to the conclusion that manganese dioxide would make a great cathode, the anode will still be made of zinc, while an alkaline material would take over the role of the electrolyte. In this way, he obtained a cell with a higher durability, but low power. Therefore, the design still needed to be refined, and the key to success turned out to be the use of zinc not in its solid form, but in a powder form. This solution significantly increased the power of the cells and put Urry’s name in the history books.

How the inventor presented his invention is an interesting aspect. He used a trick that we know well from TV adverts today – he took two toy cars and put his prototype in one of them and a widely available zinc-carbon battery in the other one. As you might guess, the toy car powered by the prototype alkaline battery was able to drive for much longer, and the presentation was so impressive that these cells almost immediately started to be produced and sold on a mass scale. Urry was granted with a patent for his battery in 1959 (a year after it was launched on the market), but he did not stop there. Throughout his career, he obtained more than 50 patents in total, and his work on the lithium batteries that are widely used to power our mobile phones today is also among his greatest achievements.

Even though it has been 70 years since the alkaline battery was invented, Urry’s prototype is still on display. It can be visited at the Smithsonian Institution, where it is displayed next to Edison’s light bulb prototype. Finally, it is also worth mentioning that the Eveready brand changed its name in 1980 and is now known as Energizer.

Dear engineer, bow down to the chemist

The history of electricity and electronics, although related to physics and the mother of all sciences, mathematics – remains inseparably linked to chemistry. Nowhere else will we see this phenomenon more clearly than in the field of energy sources. Since the dawn of time, with Alessandro Volta’s battery, electricity and electronics have been driven by electrons harnessed to work through a variety of chemical processes. This is still the case today: progress in the field of mobile devices is linked to the evolution of lithium-ion, lithium-polymer and finally lithium-iron-phosphate cells. Chemistry has also developed the tools for the production of optimised photovoltaics. It does not stop there, though: after all, it is thanks to this field that today we can enjoy efficient, stable electrolytic capacitors and supercapacitators. The developments in the field of semi-conductors are made thanks to innovative applications of silicon carbide, and the polymers produced today are successfully replacing traditional bearings and gears. Not to mention a number of inventions in which chemistry has played an important, though not central, role, such as liquid crystal displays.

The enormous contribution that chemistry has made to the development of electronics and technology is worth remembering, especially by young engineering students as well as physicists. Provocatively speaking, while the most modern nuclear power plant is still essentially an oversized kettle with a turbine – chemists such as Lewis Urry are constantly pushing forward (or rather digging deeper), forcing the matter to serve mankind in more and more new ways.

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