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A Down to Earth Battery

Quite some time after the ancient experimenters create their batteries, another attempt at an unusual batter was begun.    One such battery is often referred to as an “earth battery.  One example of an earth battery can be constructed with a pair of electrodes fashioned by using two dissimilar metals.  Two of the more common metals used as electrodes are iron and copper. The next step in an earth battery is to immerse these electrodes in moist soil or submerge them in the salty brine of the ocean.

Early earth battery pioneers

In 1841, one of the earliest examples of an earth battery was built by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. In addition to his battery experiment, he invented and patented the electric clock.  One of the projected uses of his earth battery was to power his electric clock.   EDipole readers should note Bain also installed the railway telegraph lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

His earth battery incorporated buried plates of zinc and copper.  These plates were buried approximately a yard apart.  The resulting voltage of Bain’s earth battery was about one volt. This earth battery was used to operate a clock.

Other inquiring minds also did research and applied and received patents for their earth battery research.  They include the following:

Daniel Drawbaugh (U.S. Patent 211,322) for an Earth battery for electric clocks along with several improvements in the art of Earth batteries

Emil Jahr (U.S. Patent 690,151) Method of utilizing electrical Earth currents).

James C. Bryan in 1875 received U.S. Patent 160,152 for his Earth Battery.

George Dieckmann in 1885 received US patent U.S. Patent 329,724 for his Electric Earth battery.

Nathan Stubblefield in 1898 received U.S. Patent 600,457 for his electrolytic coil battery; this was a combination of an earth battery and a solenoid.

More importantly than powering clocks, the Earth battery, in general, generated power for early telegraph transmissions and formed part of a tuned circuit that amplified the signaling voltage over long distances.

Earth Battery

A simple explanation of the earth battery is that it is a water activated battery.  Additionally, if the plates are sufficiently far apart, they can tap an electric current that moves underground or through the sea. The formal name of these current is “telluric currents.  Because of the incorporation of these currents in the success of this type of battery, earth batteries are sometimes referred to as Telluric power sources and Telluric generators.

As was cited earlier, these batteries differ little from traditional batteries.  They include conductive plates and include an electrolyte. The simplest earth batteries consist of conductive plates buried in different locations. The choices of these plates as is found in the accompanying table aids in the voltages created. When buried in the ground, the moist earth acts as the electrolyte found in a traditional voltaic cell.  This form of cell, however, device acts as a non-rechargeable battery.

Because of the variable of the moisture content in the earth’s soil, an earth battery is not continuously reliable. It should be noted these devices were used by early experimenters as energy sources for telegraphy.  This helped explain the theory of telluric current.  The long distances between telegraph offices aided engineers in their discovery there were electrical potential differences between most pairs of telegraph stations. This was cited as the result from natural electrical currents flowing through the ground. They were named telluric currents.

Some early experimenters did recognize that these currents were, in fact, partly responsible for extending the earth batteries’ high outputs and long lifetimes. Later, experimenters would utilize these currents alone and, in these systems, the plates became polarized.

Lord Kelvin adds to the study of the earth’s current. He cited that continuous electric currents flowed through the solid and liquid portions of the earth, and the collection of current from an electrically conductive medium in the absence of electrochemical changes (and in the absence of a thermoelectric junction. I should be noted that Lord Kelvin’s “sea battery” was not a chemical battery.  Lord Kelvin observations there were variables, such as the placement of the electrodes in the magnetic field and the direction of the medium’s flow affected the current output of his device. Variables of this nature do not affect traditional battery operation.

To obtain this natural electricity, experimenters would thrust two metal plates into the ground at a certain distance from each other in the direction of a magnetic meridian or astronomical meridian.  It was learned the stronger currents flow from south to north.

This phenomenon possesses a considerable uniformity of current strength and voltage. As the Earth currents flow from south to north, electrodes are positioned, beginning in the south and ending in the north, to increase the voltage at as large a distance as possible

The current produced is highest when two events occur:

(1)  when the two metals are most widely separated from each other in the electro potential series


(2) when the material nearer the positive end is to the north and the negative end is towards the south. The plates, one copper and another iron or carbon, are connected above ground by means of a wire with as little resistance as possible. In such an arrangement, the electrodes are not appreciably chemically corroded, even when they are in earth saturated with water, and are connected together by a wire for a long time.

Also it was discovered in early experiments that the current would be strong when the northerly electropositive electrode is driven deeper into the medium than the southerly electrode.

In other experiments, a pair of plates with differing electrical properties and with suitable protective coatings was buried below the ground. A protective or other coating covered each entire plate. A copper plate could be coated with powdered coke. A layer of felt would be applied to a zinc plate. This type of enhanced aid to better use this natural electricity, were used fed electromagnets, a load, that were part of a motor mechanism.

Do readers of the eDipole have any creative ideas on how this natural electricity can be used in a beneficial way?

4 Responses to A Down to Earth Battery

  1. Ankush Nankade Reply

    January 23, 2014 at 5:37 am

    If this earth battery is constructed in a substation , the principle of step potential will be handy..

  2. léo Reply

    March 8, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    This is very easy to understand that earth battery is just a chemical battery. The difference of electronegativity of the two different metals of the bars (anode and cathode) made an electrons flow to the more electronegative metal to the less electronegative metal, just a galvanic effect, as one can see in the rust of zinc plates or magnesiun plates touching iron plates and preventing that iron plates rust, an old trick used in iron ships. With time, the bar of zinc will oxidize and the battery will die.

  3. Ufoidomar Reply

    January 3, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    If it was just a chemical battery than why do their power varys by so many factors that has no effect on chemical batteries, or even have different effect on them?

  4. Todd Millions Reply

    October 29, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Even in the case of -“sacrificial zinc”used for corrosion control on STEEL hulls (I have never found references to it being needed on wrought iron hulls.)-its not just the case of a simple chemical battery. Shape and motion and strain all are factors that make the placement-more of an art.Boilers are(or can be) the same.
    Some of Lord Kelvins investigations via his -“Sea batteries”,were to build up an understanding of these differences.
    References with few specifics are all that I have usually found on this subject.
    I find it passing strange that a similar lack of detail (in the practice)of using electrical currents fed into the ground for oil/gas and mineral extraction -and ground stabilizing for the extractive industries-seems too start at this point.
    With ground water issues around vaporized isreali “secured”(The new word for extortion to the nth.)atomic power plants- A(public) review of the existing art(s) would seem to me to be warranted. Trade secrecy falling in this case to-“Force(Idiocy) Majaure.”

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