Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah.
The third week of June, 2017
Heat wave – maybe 110 degrees – even the lizard’s tongues are hanging out.
If you had been a guest in my home this past week, you and I would have been driven out of bed at 3 a.m. one morning by the incessant, irritating chirping of a dying smoke alarm detector, high on the kitchen wall:
eeenk . . . . eeenk . . . . eeenk. . . eeenk . . .eeenk . . . . AAARGH, DAMN!
And so . . . here’s an account of what happened next and next and then next.
You might read this as proof that I’m getting old and stupid.
But that’s not the case – I’ve been stupid all my life – or, better said, ignorant
about some very commonplace things. And ignorance is the ground in which facts can be planted and some degree of wisdom attained, leading to surprising outcomes.
For example, by the time you reach the end of this essay, you will know why I now have a new clock driven by two potatoes.
BATTERY EPIPHANY – an ionic tale
1. So we get up – unified in our need to muzzle the dying smoke detector alarm, which is matched in its nagging ability only by a small child who wants something you don’t want him to have. eeenk . . . eeenk . . . eeenk. . . .
2. The alarm is located in a high dark corner of the kitchen.
Need a ladder and a flashlight.
The ladder is in another building 50 yards away.
The big flashlight doesn’t work.
Dead batteries. eeenk . . . eeenk . . . Damn!
3. Thrashing around in the laundry store room looking for replacements, I find that there is no new 6 volt battery and no new smoke alarm battery.
Those are on the “things to pick up in town sometime soon.” list.
Sometime soon has not arrived soon enough. eeenk . . . eeenk . . .eeenk . . .
4. There is a small flashlight in on my bedside table.
Its batteries are also dead.
Aha! My cell phone has a built-in flashlight.
But I don’t remember how to turn it on.
You remember. Flick.
And so, by the feeble light of the cell phone, we fetch the big ladder and stumble back up the path with it. With two of us perched dangerously high on the ladder, one shines the cell phone light while the other rips the battery out of the innards of the smoke detector.
One last eeenk and then silence, blessed silence. YES!
5. Holding the little rectangular battery in my hand, I wonder aloud:
“What is inside a battery? How does it work?”
I don’t know.
You don’t know.
And I find that nobody else I asked the next day knows either.
6. How can this be? I consider the place of batteries in my life – in my phone, computer, watch, flashlight, smoke detectors, backup power units, clocks, car, toys, binoculars, remote controls, shaver, beard trimmer, razor, pepper grinder, car-door opener, and even toothbrush.
Mystery abounds in these common little devices.
Much of my daily life runs on batteries.
Without batteries my life would come to a stumbling standstill.
And yet . . . I can’t tell you how the energy gets in there, how it’s maintained, and how it works.
“Magic” is the best I can do.
7. Standing in the checkout line at the hardware store in town the next day, I began to feel competent again – at least when it came to having an ample supply of backup batteries. I had a shopping cart filled with blister packs of A’s, AA’s, AAA’S, C’s, D’s, smoke alarm units and six-volt batteries for the big flashlights.
A year’s supply.
While idling in line, my mind went busy on me.
What would happen if I cracked one of these little tubes open?
8. So, when I got home, I busted one open with a sledge hammer.
And didn’t learn much about what’s in there or why it works.
(Don’t do this – you’ll only make a mess and won’t increase your knowledge.)
These days one doesn’t have to settle for ignorance.
The internet will provide knowledge.
Stupidity is only a sign of unwillingness to seek facts.
So I turned to the e-classroom for enlightenment.
9. Batteries are all about ions.
So, what’s an ion?
It’s an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons.
What’s an electron?
A stable subatomic particle with a charge of negative electricity, found in all atoms and acting as the primary carrier of electricity in solids.
In the electro-chemical interaction between ions, energy is released.
And energy makes the world go round.
I read about this until my eyes bled, but I still couldn’t get my mind around it so that I could tell you anything more meaningful. It’s complicated, involving chemistry, physics, and voodoo.
13. One more thing – get this – something just like this ion/electron thing happens inside the human body to trigger the energy that makes our hearts beat.
Moving in a juicy soup.
We are the product of an electro-chemical process.
While you are reading this, your heart beat and mine are energized by ions.
Be still – put your hand on your chest over your heart – ka-thump, ka-thump.
I am, in a way, a battery.
A living example of the Great Mystery – the Energy at the Center of Everything.
Exhausting to think about or explain.
Maybe “magic” will just have to do.*
I’ve been churning this matter of batteries around in my mind all week.
And kept finding that my thinking was drifting over into the inexpressible,
at least for an amateur at science like me.
But I couldn’t let go of thinking that something so apparently common and mundane was a connection to something so profoundly important.
And then I remembered a science experiment one of my kids brought home from elementary school.
A clock run by potatoes.
Something simple that I and they could more-or-less understand.
So I ordered one.
There’s a picture of it on my facebook page – and a diagram at the top of this journal posting.
Take a look before you read on.
Here’s the explanation that came with the clock:
“The energy comes from the chemical change in the zinc when it dissolves inside the mild phosphoric acid content of the potato.
The energy does not come from the potato itself.
What happens is that the zinc is oxidized inside the potato, exchanging some of its electrons with the potato acid in order to reach a lower energy state, and the energy released provides the electrical power.
Let’s imagine first that we have one potato and the zinc and copper strips are inserted into this potato, with a wire connecting the two strips.
This potato battery works as follows:
1) The zinc atoms in contact with the potato dissolve in the presence of the acid. This causes some electrons to separate from the zinc atoms.
As a result of this, positively charged zinc ions, and negatively charged electrons, are produced.
2) The electrons produced in the above reaction travel out through the zinc, through the wire, and into the copper strip also inserted in the potato.
They do this because they are attracted to the positive hydrogen ions in the potato, located on the copper side (these hydrogen ions are there due to the acid content of the potato).
Since the electrons cannot pass through the potato itself, they pass through the wire joining the zinc and copper strips. These electrons then combine with these positive hydrogen ions (on the copper side) and produce hydrogen gas, which then bubbles away.
Note that the above chemical reaction happens spontaneously.
It is self-driven. The electrons are forced to travel an external path, and if this external path is connected to an electrical device, such as a clock, it powers the device.”
So there you have it. As close as I can come – the best I can do.
Maybe a whole lot more than you wanted to know.
Simply said, something just like what happens with the potatoes is what happens in a regular battery.
And also in us.
Now I have this potato clock – it may run for 3 to 5 days.
When it runs down, I can bake and eat the batteries.