Sounds and Disappointments from the Past
CHAPTER 19 - A Roller Coaster Ride
As regular readers know, my columns the past year or so have generally contained a bit of science, with the bulk of the columns in the form of personal memoirs. Along the lines of delving into my own roots, I was watching the February 19 TV program Sunday Morning, which had a segment by Mo Rocca on our lesser known presidents of the USA. What caught my attention was that Rocca interviewed the grandson of President John Tyler! Why the exclamation point? John Tyler was born in 1790, when George Washington was president. The fact that Tyler's grandson is alive over 220 years later is remarkable. It turns out that Tyler sired his grandson's father when Tyler was 63, while the grandson's father helped produce the grandson at the age of 75! The grandson, 83, was born in 1928, the year after I was born. Rocca couldn't resist commenting that those old guys were still active at advanced ages well before Viagra appeared on the scene.
Coincidentally, I was intrigued by an article by Ron Cowen in the January 20 issue of Science in which another grandson, actually a great grandson, played a role. The article, titled "Archaeologist of Sound", is about Patrick Feaster's fascinating obsession with sound and sound recordings. The article describes Feaster's work with a company he and his colleagues founded called FirstSounds.org, devoted to finding and unraveling the earliest sound recordings. The article talks of FirstSounds' work on early recordings such as those by Edison on needle-cut tin foil and various wax recordings. But what got me were their efforts on possibly the world's first sound recordings, dating back to the 1850s, before the American Civil War.
Eduardo-Leon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and amateur inventor, had invented a machine using a horn and a stylus that picked up sound vibrations from the air and converted them to tracings on paper coated with soot. Apparently, Scott was not interested in playing the sounds back but hoped that in the future someone could learn to "read" the tracings, termed "phonoautograms", and reproduce the original sounds. FirstSounds found that, in 1878, Edison's lab had also made similar phonoautograms. FirstSounds scanned these Edison items and sent the scans to physicists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. These two fellows had previously worked on software to convert high resolution scans of the grooves of fragile wax cylinders and disks into sound.
Haber and Cornell succeeded in playing the copies of Edison phonoautograms and so it was off to Paris, where David Giovanni of FirstSounds found and scanned some of Scott's phonoautograms stored in the French patent office. They were a mess! It seemed that it might not be possible to reconstruct any intelligible sounds. However, Giovanni realized that Scott had given them a key, another tracing Scott identified as being from a tuning fork, whose frequency he noted on the sheet. So it was back to Berkeley, where Haber and Cornell still had a big problem - Scott had to turn a crank to make his tracings and he didn't keep the cranking speed uniform. Feaster recalls working through the night on one of the scans, adjusting the sound of the tuning fork. At 5:30 AM, he heard what sounded like a young girl singing "Au Claire de Lune"!
A voice from 1860 had come to life! But wait. Another tracing also had a tuning fork tracing accompany it and when they reconstructed this tracing the result sounded like the Chipmunks singing. Feaster soon realized that Scott had marked the frequency of the tuning fork in half cycles, not the full cycles used today, and when he went back to adjusting the Au Claire de Lune tracing, the "girl" became a man, almost certainly Scott himself! In 2009, Feaster met Scott's great grandson, Laurent Scott, in Paris and, putting on headphones attached to Feaster's laptop computer, Laurent was able to hear the voice of his great grandfather "recorded" about 150 years earlier! I can't help thinking that my own grandson, currently a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh planning to major in computer science, might one day be in the business of decoding something as complex or even more complex than bringing back the sounds of long ago.
Well, let's resume seeing what I can reconstruct from my past. Last month, I wrote about events that took place in the 1970s. Let's move on into the 1980s, which were to prove an important decade for the battery world, for me personally and for the Bell System. Concerning the latter, January 1, 1984 saw the breakup of the Bell System, with AT&T spinning off of the operating companies, the "Baby Bells" and the formation of a new R&D entity for the Baby Bells, Bellcore. We became AT&T Bell Laboratories and many at Bell Labs were transferred to the newly formed Bellcore. For some time, before their physical transfer, we housed those Bellcore employees in the same labs they occupied before the breakup. In some cases, walls were built within a lab to minimize contact with our former buddies, now "outsiders"! Needless to say, it was virtually impossible to keep secret what we were doing when our former colleagues were still next door or in the same labs with no walls.
But let's go back in time to set the stage for what turned out to be a major effort to develop a practical rechargeable lithium battery. We had made strides in making batteries employing the fibrous niobium triselenide John Broadhead, Frank Di Salvo and I had patented. The Exxon Corporation had also been working diligently on lithium batteries but had decided to abandon their efforts and we purchased some of their hardware and, if memory serves me correctly, some of their dry room equipment. We had been working with the lithium in dry boxes. This was a cumbersome process, with the handling of the lithium and contents of the cells under an inert atmosphere of helium gas with large rubber gloves installed through ports in the dry box. However, with dry rooms we could handle the pure lithium foils in an atmosphere of very low humidity without the lithium reacting with the air or moisture in the air. Our early work was done with simple test cells in the dry box but we graduated to sealed coin, or button, cells.
We were in that mode of operation when our new department head, Bill Grupen, called a meeting to announce that we were to embark on a major development program aimed at building a AA-size rechargeable lithium cell in which the cathode material would be our niobium triselenide. The project would be known as the Faraday project and our product would be the Faraday cell. I was surprised by this decision because of the toxicity of selenium and the possibility that the fibrous nature of the compound might have health hazards associated with it being somewhat similar in nature to that of fibrous asbestos. But the decision was made and our group charged forward under the leadership of our British colleague, John Broadhead.
Broadhead was, and I imagine still is, a most enthusiastic and optimistic fellow with a flair for promotion. We found him promising that we would come up with a battery with performance characteristics that many, perhaps most of us, questioned we could achieve. Amazingly, we managed to deliver on virtually all his promises! My own contributions to the Faraday project evolved to lie in two areas. One was setting up and programming a battery cycling and data acquisition facility capable of handling over a hundred different cells, each independently controlled as far as charge and discharge currents, voltage limits and suitable alarms should anything go wrong. Jim Auborn, an ex nuclear submarine officer, introduced me to the world of Hewlett Packard computers and the Hewlett Packard programming language HPL. Working with Jim and my lab mate, Texan Shelie Granstaf, we set up a facility for not only cycling rechargeable lithium cells but also monitoring the discharges of primary, nonrechargeable lithium cells. Those of you with computers having memories in the many Gigabyte range will appreciate that in those days I started out with a Hewlett Packard 9825S computer with only 23 kilobytes of memory! In writing the programs I had to conserve every possible byte and stored the data on external 8-inch disks. My ultimate program involved about 500 lines and I was quite proud of it.
I was also was the "production line", so to speak, for supplying large strips of the niobium triselenide, which were wound up in the cylindrical Faraday AA cells. The process involved sealing multiple sheets of niobium metal, separated by plates of aluminum oxide, together with pellets of selenium under vacuum in large fused quartz tubes. This operation was carried out in a lab in the research area in Frank Di Salvo's department, an example of the cooperation at Bell Labs between research and development areas. One of the Bellcore people who happened to also use that lab was Jean Marie Tarascon, a French fellow who was to become a lithium battery superstar after moving to Bellcore and then back to France.
Our work on lithium batteries could at times be rather exciting, thanks to the reactivity of lithium with the organic solvents used in the cells. Shelie Granstaf was assigned the unenviable job of looking at the safety of our batteries. One test was simply to heat the cells on a hotplate and see if they blew up. Another was to short circuit the batteries. Poor Shelie had to carry out these experiments in one of the labs divided by a wall thanks to the formation of Bellcore. This made the confines of the labs appreciably smaller than normal and Shelie would have to brave the anticipated explosions of the cells in the hood in that confined space. At least in the earlier days of our lithium work we went outside to blow up our batteries.
One year I was the designated safety representative for the department. While at lunch one day, I was summoned to the dry room area to deal with an incident involving a summer student. She was in the dry room working with a AA cell that had been cycled a number of times. She had welded a "harness" on the cell for further testing and remarked to someone in the room that the cell felt warm. Not a good thing! Peter Lu, sitting nearby, heard her comment and rushed over, grabbed the cell and put it in a beaker inside an open Mason jar and the three rushed to leave the room. Within seconds, however, the cell exploded in flames, parts of it flying up, hitting the ceiling and setting a box of Kimwipe tissues on fire, threatening to ignite books on a shelf. Lu grabbed the box and raced out in the hall to another lab where he doused the flames. Remember, the dry room had no water to put out the fire. The whole incident took place within about two minutes after welding the harness to the cell. We speculated that the welding process had shorted the cell, leading to the explosion.
We managed to make significant progress, enhancing the performance characteristics of our Faraday cells so that we achieved cycle lives of several hundred cycles and packed impressive amounts of energy in the cells. At the time we felt that we had the most promising rechargeable lithium batteries in the world. Our achievements caught the eye of the manufacturing arm of the Bell System, Western Electric, still associated with us and AT&T after divestiture. So impressed was Western that a large space in their factory in Kansas City was cleared and equipment was ordered to begin manufacture of the Faraday cell. We spent a considerable amount of time teaching Western employees the details of our procedures for constructing the cells.
All this was for naught, however, when for some reason all battery work in Western was moved to Dallas. So, we spent more time training people from Dallas. But wait, the roller coaster ride continued. This time it was a decision by our AT&T management killing the manufacture of the Faraday cell. What to do? It turned out that a major battery manufacturer was interested in talking with us about Faraday. The interest was so real that for several months we had employees from that company working in our labs to learn our procedures. Finally, an agreement was reached that they would indeed use our technology and manufacture the lithium-niobium selenide battery! The lawyers got together and drew up the agreements and all seemed in order.
In fact, we had a celebratory meeting set for a day or so after the scheduled signing of the agreements by both parties. We had mementos made for us to have to share memories of the big occasion. As I write this, I'm looking at one of those mementos, a gold-rimmed mug emblazoned with the words "Team Faraday" in bold red letters. I should note that during this period of the Faraday project we had a new department head, the late Harry Leamy. Harry was a lively fellow with a devilish sense of humor. For example, at a special meeting of some sort held at Fiddlers Elbow, an upscale country club, Harry gathered a small group of us and said he was going to show a rare animal species. He led us outside to a window where we could look in and see this rare species, a bunch of club members of the upper class (today's one percent?) enjoying their evening cocktails!
Well, when Harry came into our celebratory meeting and said, "Folks, it's all off!", we all assumed he was kidding and said so. He was not. The battery company was part of a conglomerate and, for reasons apparently not related to us, the conglomerate management had killed the project! Our roller coaster ride was again at bottom. Another effort was made with a Japanese company but that company was not interested, one reason being the toxicity of selenium.
Next month I plan to finish off my days at Bell Labs and head into "retirement" in academia. Hopefully, the next column will be posted on or before April Fool's day.
Allen F. Bortrum