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I'm building a world where high-density, low cost batteries are discovered far, far in advance of modern times, leading to a decentralised power grid. It has become convention for homes and buildings to be build with inbuilt batteries, and energy is supplied by town-to-town vendors. My question is:

  • What is the best form of modern battery tech that could feasibly have been discovered before the Industrial Revolution?
  • If different to the above, what is the cheapest to produce?
  • If none exist, what's the earliest humanity could have mass produced kilowatt scale batteries?
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  • $\begingroup$ For clarity: by "batteries" you mean secondary cells (= rechargeable batteries, accumulators), correct? What do you mean by "kilowatt scale"? Kilowatts are a unit of power, not of energy; an ordinary lead-acid battery (as used to start a car) can output a kilowatt for a short time. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 18 '19 at 7:41
  • $\begingroup$ Baghdad battery? What are the uses for the batteries? I mean what they power and why would creating batteries be more financial resonable than creating a grid? $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 18 '19 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ Discovered is one thing. Mass produced is trickier. $\endgroup$ – SRM Nov 18 '19 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ My main question here is how you're defining a battery. Is it something which stores energy which can be output as electricity, or something which CHEMICALLY stores energy to be output as electricity? $\endgroup$ – DoublyNegative Nov 18 '19 at 18:43
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Conceptually, batteries have been around for a very long time, some of the earliest forms that we would recognise coming into existence around 1749 but that would certainly not be a battery in the kilowatt storage range, and that is unlikely to be developed because electrical storage was not the limiting factor; it was electrical generation.

In 1861, the Maxwell equations came out, effectively merging electrical force with magnetic force. From a practical perspective, that meant you could spin an axle inside a magnetic field to generate electricity, and you could run electricity through an axle in a magnetic field to make it spin. For the purposes of this question, you want the first of these.

If this was discovered earlier, then batteries of larger and larger capacity would have been developed for no better reason than the power could be stored. Windmills would have converted their water wheels to dynamos, and even normal homes would have had the practice of hand cranking a dynamo to power their battery to do things around the house as it would be one form of work that could store the energy very efficiently (in time).

As for the form of battery, check the link as it had quite a few options that would have been possible prior to the industrial revolution but when you get right down to it, storing different metals together even by accident is very likely to lead you to new battery options given enough time and permutations of natural conditions. The trick is not to come up with batteries in the first place, it's to give people the natural incentive to make better batteries by improving their usefulness.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nobody is going to want a kilowatt battery if there’s no use for the energy. +1 $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 18 '19 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer, I think the Maxwell thing is the key here; it's totally feasible for someone to have accidentally discovered by coiling copper wire around a water powered turbine. Then it would be a race to attach bigger and bigger batteries to static hydro or thermal energy sources. $\endgroup$ – Ucinorn Nov 20 '19 at 4:08
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The best form of modern battery tech that could feasibly have been discovered before the Industrial Revolution is primitive lead battery. Without all modern fetures they would require a lot of maintaince, would be dangerous (a lot of early subs were destroyed due to hydrogen expolsion) and rare (there is no enough leed in the world to keep energy even for one middle-sized modern nation). So only "high-society" (i.e. cities) would use them.

The earliest times is actually ancient. Sulfric acid was known and used since around start of our era (or may be earler). So if by chance some aciant philosopher experimenting with ember electicity and acids would discover it's effect, thats may be with huge lot of "buts" and a bunch of Deuses ex Mashina evolve for some working applications.

The main limiting factor here is not even a technology, but society. In acient times most effective devices were slaves, and there were no need for something better. For early (i.e. dark ages) and middle medieval there were other priorities (religion and ownship wars) and feudal system would not tolarate any "town-to-town vendors" (as they become threat to existing order and power).

So only at new times (XVII-XIV) this technology would have a chance to spread. And that Steampunk is all about!

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  • $\begingroup$ "In acient times most effective devices were slaves": not really. Nobody used slaves as engines, because humans are very bad at this. (With the usual exceptions when human intelligence is useful; we also use human power in such situation even today.) Horses, donkeys and oxen are very much better as sources of motive power. And they did have water wheels in the antiquity for cases when lots of power was needed for a long time. (And anyway, maybe with the exception of Rome for a short time in the late republic / early empire, no ancient economy was all that dependent on slaves.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 18 '19 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP In terms if food/power, mass/power and maintaince/power salves are better than any oxen and donkeys. No one were using horses to power galeras (the were projects - but weight of food for horses leave no place for cargo). Humans are among most power efficent animlas (shearing this place with dogs) on Earth. $\endgroup$ – ksbes Nov 18 '19 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ In the antiquity galley rowers were free men, soldiers, who were actually considered specialists and received better pay than ordinary soldiers. (And cargo ships were wind-powered anyway; galleys were war ships.) (The problem with humans is that they cannot eat grass, whereas donkeys and oxen can and are happy with it... Don't compute calories in / calories out; compute price per kilowatt hour.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 18 '19 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, digesting grass requires much, much more energy than digesting prepared food (and more energy then even raw meat). That is the mian reason of human energy efficiency. (Galleys just illustrate human efficiency, because they are very senceative to power/mass and power/food ratios). Herbovores has very low net "energy profit", wich is compensated with abundance and no need to chase their food. $\endgroup$ – ksbes Nov 18 '19 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but grass is cheap. That's why the interesting metric for economic use is dollars (or sesterces, or minas) per kilowatt-hour output. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 18 '19 at 11:57
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I'd say mechanical batteries, such as dams (i say 'such as', but i don't know of other examples as of now that are used as much as hydro, but i will add other hypothetical examples later). Pumped-storage hydropower is one real-world example of currently used low-tech solutions. "all you need" is a huge dam, a few of them, dispersed. they are often used currently and store tens of thousands of Megawattshours.

You could also try compressed air for a more exciting and risky storage. Gives a lot of opportunity such as 'oh no the high pressure tank is about to explode' (even though i'd build them in underground balls to maximise security. You know, balls being the perfect pressure container, and underground being perfect for not exploding everything all that badly.) Yust pump in air whenever you have too much, and let it out to power things when you need energy

Be creative, everything that stores any kind of energy is a battery (springs, and rubber bands, potential energy in form of bricks you lift up and let 'fall' down, connected to a rope which fires a transformer or just water in dams, kinetic energy in form of flywheels, internal energy in for of heat, even chemical energy, like for example converting water to hydrogen and oxygen, and reburning it, or even just batteries chemically as others might tell more about). Just make sure that the energy efficiency is high: Not much energy lost when given in, during storage and while getting out (so flywheels and heat, for example, are not optimal, even though i could imagine flywheels working not all that badly if you have many and constantly feed energy in or get it out according to demand)

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  • $\begingroup$ You cannot store megawatts. Megawatts are a unit of power, not of energy. You can store megawatt-hours. And storing energy as compressed air has terrible efficiency. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 18 '19 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, shit, thanks. I corrected it $\endgroup$ – Maritn Ge Nov 18 '19 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ Hydraulic accumulators were all the rage around the middle of the 19th century. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 18 '19 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Considering that electricity was not around much around before the 1800s, they lacked the technology. But "mechanical" storage, such as 'raised weight' would've existed earlier if electricity was around earlier. So to answer quesition i think those are the kinda energy storage devices you'd find early with a reasonably great capacity $\endgroup$ – Maritn Ge Nov 18 '19 at 9:46
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We can discover batteries before the industrial revolution. But we can't build electric infrastructure before the industrial revolution.

Lead-acid rechargeable batteries are probably the only type of batteries which could be designed before the industrial revolution. For more advanced types (Nickel, Lithium) there is no way to shortcut their development and have them ready before the industrial base is available.

So, lead-acid batteries can be built without factories and chemical plants, although they would be a bit pricey that way - an equivalent of a modern car battery (< 1 kWh) would be out of reach for a large segment of population, and an equivalent of electric car battery (> 50 kWh) would be affordable only to rich people.

However, batteries themselves are useless without an application. It would be very difficult to design a suitable application in a preindustrial era. An ubiquitous lightbulb is a pinnacle of early 20-century technology, there is no way to have it before 19st century. Electric motor or dynamo require magnet wire, while it can be made manually, the motors would be expensive like jewelry. Electrical heating is probably the only application which does not require high technology.

Overall, batteries can exist as expensive novelties in a preindustrial society. They can spur industrial development - but would that fit in your scenario?

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