When Alessandro Volta, born on this day in 1745, began experimenting with electricity, it was a pretty open field. Scientists experimented with everything from static electricity to frog legs, trying to harness power for later use, but they could not create a consistent source of energy.
Mr. Volta changed all that. He laid the groundwork for batteries by pioneering the use of electrolytes to conduct electricity. His breakthrough came when he stacked discs of copper, zinc, and cardboard soaked in brine into what became known as a “voltaic pile,” and successfully conducted a charge.
Sound simple? You're right. Elements of the first battery can be found in most homes and hardware stores. Today, you can celebrate the father of all things battery operated by creating your own charge.
Here is everything you need to make two different homemade batteries.
We’ll show you two methods: through soda and through salt water.
First up, soda. Here is what you will need:
- Can of soda (We used cream soda)
- Plastic cup
- Strip of copper
- Alligator clips
- Multimeter (a device that measures charge)
First, pour the soda into the plastic cup until it almost reaches the top. Cut a strip of the aluminum can, and then sand down both sides so there is no longer a plastic or paint coating on either side (this is important or else you won’t get a charge!).
Attach one alligator clip to the aluminum and drape it over one side of the plastic cup, and attach the other alligator clip to the copper strip and drape it over the other side of the cup. Turn on your multimeter and check your voltage. You’ve just created a simple battery.
Oh wait, you want to do this Volta-style? Try the classic saltwater method. Here is what you will need:
- Plastic cup filled almost to the top with water
- One tablespoon of table salt
- One empty soda can (we used the same can as the first experiment)
- Strip of zinc (note on finding zinc below)
- Alligator clips
Procedure-wise, you do this one the same way as with the soda. However, certain ingredients are switched out. First, add a tablespoon of salt to the water. Then, keep the aluminum from the first soda can clipped, but switch out the copper for zinc. (Quick note on supplies: I was able to get everything at a local hardware store, but zinc proved to be a bit more difficult to find. The hardware store workers suggested I go with a zinc-coated steel, which made my voltage a little lower, but still worked for the reading. That being said, you can find zinc strips online pretty easily.)
While you’re doing these experiments, there are a few things to keep in mind. To find your voltage, turn the dial to the section of the multimeter that has a V with three dots and a line above it—that means it is measuring direct charge, which is what you will see in a battery. The multimeter takes many readings and averages them out, so sometimes it is best to leave the meter for a bit before checking it.
Got a charge? Volta would be proud. But don’t hook up the car battery just yet—this level of voltage won't charge that much. To actually do something productive (perhaps illuminate a light bulb or recharge batteries), you need to duplicate the circuit a few times.
Soda and saltwater are the tip of the homemade-battery iceberg. DIY-ers have experimented with everything from tomato pulp to orange juice to conduct a charge. An online search for homemade batteries will send you down a maker rabbit hole. And if you enjoy checking the multimeter, you can use it to check the charge of pretty much anything from an old battery to your tongue (which Volta was known to do to test his theory that the conductor was liquid).
Volta didn't stop experimenting with chemicals and electricity, but you should proceed in his tinkering footsteps cautiously. His next invention was a homemade gun filled with methane and lighted with an electrophorus – excellent for an episode of "MacGyver," but probably best to be left to professionals.
Happy birthday, Volta. We're lighting up tiny LED lights in your honor.