In science and technology, a battery is a device that stores
chemical energy and makes it available in an electrical form. Batteries
consist of electrochemical devices such as two or more galvanic cells,
electrolytic cells, fuel cells, or flow cells. The modern development of
batteries started with the Voltaic pile, invented by the Italian physicist
Alessandro Volta in 1800. According to a 2005 estimate, the worldwide battery
industry generates US $48 billion in sales annually.
Formally, an electrical "battery" is an interconnected array of similar
voltaic cells ("cells"). However, in many contexts it is common to call a
single cell used on its own a battery.
The earliest known artifacts that may have served as batteries are the
Baghdad Batteries, which existed some time between 250 BC and 640 AD. However,
it is not known what electrical function they may have served, and if they
were in fact batteries at all. Scientists have developed several theories
about its use, including medicine (as a painkiller) and electroplating
The story of the modern battery begins in the 1780s with the discovery of
"animal electricity" by Luigi Galvani, which he published in 1791. He created
an electric circuit consisting of two different metals, with one touching the
frog's leg and the other touching both the leg and the first metal, thus
closing the circuit. In modern terms, the frog's leg served as both
electrolyte and detector, and the metals served as electrodes. He noticed that
even though the frog was dead, its legs would twitch when he touched them with
By 1791, Alessandro Volta realized that the frog could be replaced by
cardboard soaked in salt water, employing another form of detection. Having
already studied the electrostatic phenomenon of capacitance, Volta was able to
quantitatively measure the electromotive force (emf) associated with each
electrode-electrolyte interface (voltage) in volts, which were named after
him. Such a device is called a voltaic cell, or cell for short. In 1799, Volta
invented the modern battery by placing many galvanic cells in series,
literally piling them one above the other. This Voltaic Pile gave a greatly
enhanced net emf for the combination, with a voltage of about 50 volts for a
32-cell pile. In many parts of Europe batteries continue to be called piles.
Unfortunately, Volta did not appreciate that the voltage was due to chemical
reactions. He thought that his cells were an inexhaustible source of energy,
and that the associated chemical effects (e.g., corrosion) were a mere
nuisance -- rather than, as Michael Faraday showed around 1830, an unavoidable
by-product of their operation.
Later, researchers placed galvanic cells in series. Such banks of cells are
called batteries, presumably after the earlier use by Benjamin Franklin to
describe Leyden jars (capacitors) in series and in parallel.
Although early batteries were of great value for experimental purposes,
their limitations made them impractical for large current drain. Later,
batteries, starting with the Daniell cell in 1836, provided more reliable
currents and were adopted by industry for use in stationary devices,
particularly in telegraph networks where they were the only practical source
of electricity, since electrical distribution networks did not exist then.
These wet cells used liquid electrolytes, which were prone to leaks and
spillage if not handled correctly. Many used glass jars to hold their
components, which made them fragile. These characteristics made wet cells
unsuitable for portable appliances. Near the end of the 19th century, the
invention of dry cell batteries, which replaced liquid electrolyte with a
paste made portable electrical devices practical.
How batteries work
A battery is a device in which chemical energy is directly converted to
electrical energy. It consists of one or more voltaic cells, each of which is
composed of two half cells connected in series by the conductive electrolyte.
A battery consists of one or more voltaic cells in series. Each cell has a
positive electrode (cathode), and a negative electrode (anode). These do not
touch each other but are immersed in a solid or liquid electrolyte. In a
practical cell the materials are enclosed in a container, and a separator
between the electrodes prevents them from touching.
Each half cell has a net electromotive force (or voltage), with the net
voltage of the battery being the difference between the voltages of the
half-cells. The electrical potential across the terminals of a battery is
known as its terminal voltage, measured in volts. The terminal voltage
of a battery that is neither charging nor discharging (the open-circuit
voltage) equals its electromotive force (EMF). The terminal voltage of a
battery that is discharging is less than the EMF, and that of a battery that
is charging is greater than the EMF.
The voltage produced by a cell depends on the chemicals used in it, which
have different electrochemical potentials. For example, alkaline and
carbon-zinc cells both have EMFs of about 1.5 volts, due to the energy release
of the associated chemical reactions. Because of the high electrochemical
potentials of lithium compounds, lithium cells can provide as much as 3 or
Classification of batteries
Batteries are usually divided into two broad classes:
- Primary batteries irreversibly transform chemical energy to
electrical energy. Once the initial supply of reactants is exhausted, energy
cannot be readily restored to the battery by electrical means.
- Secondary batteries can have the chemical reactions reversed by
supplying electrical energy to the cell, restoring their original
Historically, some types of primary batteries used, for example, for
telegraph circuits, were restored to operation by replacing the components of
the battery consumed by the chemical reaction. Secondary batteries are not
indefinitely rechargeable due to dissipation of the active materials, loss of
electrolyte, and internal corrosion.
Battery capacity and discharging
The more electrolyte and electrode material in the cell, the greater the
capacity of the cell. Thus a tiny cell has much less capacity than a much
larger cell, even if both rely on the same chemical reactions (e.g. alkaline
cells), which produce the same terminal voltage.
Because of the chemical reactions within the cells, the capacity of a
battery depends on the discharge conditions such as the magnitude of the
current, the duration of the current, the allowable terminal voltage of the
battery, temperature, and other factors.
The available capacity of a battery depends upon the rate at which it is
discharged. If a battery is discharged at a relatively high rate, the
available capacity will be lower than expected. Therefore, a battery rated at
100 A·h will deliver 5 A over a 20 hour period, but if it is instead
discharged at 50 A, it will run out of charge before the theoretically
expected 2 hours. For this reason, a battery capacity rating is always related
to an expected discharge duration, such as 15 minutes, 8 hours, 20 hours or
The relationship between current, discharge time, and capacity for a lead
acid battery is expressed by Peukert's law. The efficiency of a battery is
different at different discharge rates. When discharging at low rate, the
battery's energy is delivered more efficiently than at higher discharge rates.
Battery manufacturers use a standard method to rate their batteries. The
battery is discharged at a constant rate of current over a fixed period of
time, such as 10 hours or 20 hours, down to a predetermined terminal voltage
per cell. So a 100 ampere-hour battery is rated to provide 5 A for 20 hours at
In general, the higher the ampere-hour rating, the longer the battery will
last for a certain load. Installing batteries with different A·h ratings will
not affect the operation of a device rated for a specific voltage.
Conversion to energy
The ampere-hour (A·h) rating of a battery is related to the amount of
energy it stores when fully charged. If two batteries have the same nominal
voltage, then the one with the higher A·h rating stores more energy. It also
typically takes longer to recharge. Accurate calculation of the energy stored
in the battery is complex due to the varying terminal voltage during discharge
(and so the need to specify an end terminal voltage for discharge), and due to
the dependency of total capacity on the discharge rate and discharge duty.
Secondary batteries always yield less energy than was used to charge them,
since (among other reasons) the terminal voltage during charging is higher
than during discharging. The nickel cadmium and nickel metal-hydride designs
have efficiencies of around 66%. However, modern lithium designs have almost
negated this wastage as they can have efficiencies of around 99%.
Even if never taken out of the original package, disposable (or "primary")
batteries can lose two to twenty-five percent of their original charge every
year. This is known as the "self discharge" rate and is due to
non-current-producing "side" chemical reactions, which occur within the cell
even if no load is applied to it. The rate of the side reactions is reduced if
the batteries are stored at low temperature, although some batteries can be
damaged by freezing. High or low temperatures will reduce battery performance.
Rechargeable batteries traditionally self-discharge more rapidly than
disposable alkaline batteries; up to three percent a day (depending on
temperature), but modern Lithium designs have reduced the self discharge to a
relatively low level (but still poorer than primary technology). Due to their
poor shelf life, they should not be stored and then relied upon to power
flashlights or radios in an emergency. For this reason, it is a good idea to
keep alkaline batteries on hand. Ni-Cd Batteries are almost always "dead" when
purchased, and must be charged before first use.
Most NiMH and NiCd batteries can be charged several hundred times. Also,
they both can be completely discharged and then recharged without their
capacity being damaged or shortened.
Automotive lead-acid rechargeable batteries have a much harder life.
Because of vibration, shock, heat, cold, and sulfation of their lead plates,
few automotive batteries last beyond six years of regular use. Automotive
starting batteries have many thin plates to provide as many amps as possible
in a reasonably small package, and are only drained a small amount before
being immediately recharged. Care should be taken to avoid deep discharging a
starting battery, since each charge and discharge cycle causes active material
to be shed from the plates. When holes form in the plates it results in less
surface area for the chemical reaction, which results in less available
voltage when under load. Leaving a lead-acid battery in a deeply discharged
state for any significant length of time allows the lead sulfate to
making it difficult or impossible to remove during the charging process. This
can result in a permanent reduction in the available plate surface and
therefore reduced current output and energy capacity. "Deep-Cycle" lead-acid
batteries such as those used in electric golf carts have much thicker plates
to aid their longevity. The main benefit of lead-acid is its low cost; the
main drawbacks are its large size and weight per a given capacity and voltage.
Lead-acid batteries should never be discharged to below 20% of their full
capacity as internal resistance will cause heat and damage when attempting to
recharge them. Deep-cycle lead-acid systems often use a low-charge warning
light or a low-charge power cut-off switch to prevent the type of damage that
will shorten the battery's life.
Special "reserve" batteries intended for long storage in emergency
equipment or munitions keep the electrolyte of the battery separate from the
plates until the battery is activated, allowing the cells to be filled with
the electrolyte. Shelf times for such batteries can be years or decades.
However, their construction is more expensive than more common forms.
Battery life can be extended by storing the batteries at a low temperature,
as in a refrigerator or freezer, because the chemical reactions in the
batteries are slower. Such storage can extend the life of alkaline batteries
by an insignificant 5%; however, the charge of rechargeable batteries can be
extended dramatically from a few days to several months. In order to reach
their full power, batteries must be returned to room temperature; therefore,
alkaline battery manufacturers like Duracell do not recommend refrigerating or
A battery explosion is caused by the misuse or malfunction of a battery,
such as attempting to recharge a primary (non-rechargeable) battery, or short
circuiting a battery. With car batteries, explosions are most likely to occur
when a short circuit generates very large currents. In addition, car batteries
liberate hydrogen when they are overcharged (because of electrolysis of the
water in the electrolyte). Normally the amount of overcharging is very small,
as is the amount of explosive gas developed, and the gas dissipates quickly.
However, when "jumping" a car battery, the high current can cause the rapid
release of large volumes of hydrogen, which can be ignited by a nearby spark
(for example, when removing the jumper cables).
When a battery is recharged at an excessive rate, an explosive gas mixture
of hydrogen and oxygen may be produced faster than it can escape from within
the walls of the battery, leading to pressure build-up and the possibility of
the battery case bursting. In extreme cases, the battery acid may spray
violently from the casing of the battery and cause injury.
Additionally, disposing of a battery in fire may cause an explosion as
steam builds up within the sealed case of the battery.
Overcharging -- that is, attempting to charge a battery beyond its
electrical capacity -- can also lead to a battery explosion, leakage, or
irreversible damage to the battery. It may also cause damage to the charger or
device in which the overcharged battery is later used.
Disposable and rechargeable batteries
From a user's viewpoint, at least, batteries can be generally divided into
two main types: non-rechargeable (disposable) and rechargeable.
Each is in wide usage.
Disposable batteries, also called primary cells, are intended to be
used once and discarded. These are most commonly used in portable devices with
either low current drain, only used intermittently, or used well away from an
alternative power source. Primary cells were also commonly used for alarm and
communication circuits where other electric power was only intermittently
available. Primary cells cannot be reliably recharged, since the chemical
reactions are not easily reversible and active materials may not return to
their original forms. Battery manufacturers recommend against attempting to
recharge primary cells, although some electronics enthusiasts claim it is
possible to do so using a special type of charger.
By contrast, rechargeable batteries or secondary cells can be
re-charged by applying electrical current, which reverses the chemical
reactions that occur in use. Devices to supply the appropriate current are
called chargers or rechargers.
The oldest form of rechargeable battery still in modern usage is the "wet
cell" lead-acid battery. This battery is notable in that it contains a liquid
in an unsealed container, requiring that the battery be kept upright and the
area be well-ventilated to ensure safe dispersal of the hydrogen gas which is
vented by these batteries during overcharging. The lead-acid battery is also
very heavy for the amount of electrical energy it can supply. Despite this,
its low manufacturing cost and its high surge current levels make its use
common where a large capacity (over approximately 10Ah) is required or where
the weight and ease of handling are not concerns.
A common form of lead-acid battery is the modern wet-cell car battery. This
can deliver about 10,000 watts of power for a short period, and has a peak
current output that varies from 450 to 1100 amperes. An improved type of
lead-acid battery called a gel battery (or "gel cell") has become
popular in automotive industry as a replacement for the lead-acid wet cell.
The gel battery contains a semi-solid electrolyte to prevent spillage,
electrolyte evaporation, and out-gassing, as well as greatly improving its
resistance to damage from vibration and heat. Another type of battery, the Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) suspends the electrolyte in a special
matting to achieve similar results. More portable rechargeable batteries
include several "dry cell" types, which are sealed units and are therefore
useful in appliances like mobile phones and laptops. Cells of this type (in
order of increasing power density and cost) include nickel-cadmium (NiCd),
nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium-ion (Li-Ion) cells.
Not designed to be rechargeable - sometimes called "primary cells".
- Zinc-carbon battery - mid cost - used in light drain applications
- Zinc-chloride battery - similar to zinc carbon but slightly longer life
- Alkaline battery - alkaline/manganese "long life" batteries widely used
in both light drain and heavy drain applications
- Silver-oxide battery - commonly used in hearing aids
- Lithium Iron Disulphide battery - commonly used in digital cameras.
Sometimes used in watches and computer clocks. Very long life (up to ten
years in wristwatches) and capable of delivering high currents but
expensive. Will operate in sub-zero temperatures.
- Mercury battery - formerly used in digital watches, radio
communications, and portable electronic instruments, manufactured only for
specialist applications due to toxicity
- Zinc-air battery - commonly used in hearing aids
- Thermal battery - high temperature reserve. Almost exclusively military
- Water-activated battery - used for radiosondes and emergency
- Nickel Oxyhydroxide battery - Ideal for applications that use bursts of
high current. Better performance and cheaper in this application than
Lithium Iron Disulphide.
Also known as secondary batteries or accumulators.
- Lead-acid battery - used in vehicles, alarm systems and uninterruptible
power supplies. The major advantage of this chemistry is its low cost - a
large lead-acid battery (e.g. 70Ah) is relatively inexpensive compared to
batteries based on other chemistries, but this is most likely due to its
popularity. However, this historically important battery type has a lower
energy/mass than other battery types now available (see below).
- Absorbed glass mat
- Gel battery
- Sealed Lead Acid
- Lithium ion battery - used in laptops (notebook PCs), modern camera
phones, some rechargeable MP3 players and most other portable rechargeable
digital equipment. This relatively modern battery type has a very high
energy/mass (i.e., a light battery that will store a lot of energy) and
shows no "memory effect".
- Lithium ion polymer battery - similar characteristics to lithium-ion,
but with slightly less energy/mass. This battery type can be shaped
according to need, as in ultra-thin (1 mm thick) cells for PDAs.
- NaS battery
- Nickel-iron battery
- Nickel metal hydride battery
- Nickel-cadmium battery - used in many domestic applications but being
superseded by Li-Ion and Ni-MH types. This chemistry gives the longest cycle
life (over 1500 cycles), but has low energy/mass compared to Li-Ion and Ni-MH.
Ni-Cd cells using older technology suffer from memory effect; this has been
reduced drastically in modern batteries. Toxicity hazard with the heavy
- Nickel-zinc battery
- Molten salt battery
- Silver Zinc battery - This once attractive technology had the highest
energy density (prior to lithium technologies), and was primarily developed
for aircraft use. The world wide rise in silver prices saw its demise. It
was used as the power source for the 'moon buggy' on the later Apollo moon
Traction batteries are high-power batteries designed to provide propulsion
to move a vehicle, such as an electric car or tow motor. A major design
consideration is power to weight ratio since the vehicle must carry the
battery. While conventional lead acid batteries with liquid electrolyte have
been used, gelled electrolyte and (AGM-type) can also be used, especially in
smaller sizes. The largest installations of batteries for propulsion of
vehicles are found in submarines, although the toxic gas produced by seawater
contact with acid electrolyte is a considerable hazard.
Battery types commercially used in electric vehicles include:
- lead-acid battery
- flooded type with liquid electrolyte.
- AGM-type (Absorbed Glass Mat)
- Zebra Na/NiCl2 battery operating at 270 °C requiring cooling
in case of temperature excursions
- NiZn battery (higher cell voltage 1.6 V and thus 25% increased specific
energy, very short lifespan)
Lithium-ion batteries are now pushing out NiMh-technology.
Flow batteries are a special class of battery where additional quantities
of electrolyte are stored outside the main power cell of the battery, and
circulated through it by pumps or by movement. Flow batteries can have
extremely large capacities and are used in marine applications and are gaining
popularity in grid energy storage applications.
Zinc-bromine and vanadium redox batteries are typical examples of
commercially-available flow batteries.
Since their development over 250 years ago, batteries have remained among
the most expensive energy sources, and their manufacturing consumes many
valuable resources and often involves hazardous chemicals. For this reason
many areas now have battery recycling services available to recover some of
the more toxic (and sometimes valuable) materials from used batteries.
Batteries may be harmful or fatal if swallowed. It is also important to
prevent dangerous elements found in some batteries, such as lead, mercury,
cadmium, from entering the environment.
Cells in series or in parallel
The cells in a battery can be connected in parallel, series, or in both. A
parallel combination of cells has the same voltage as a single cell, but can
supply a higher current (the sum of the currents from all the cells). A series
combination has the same current rating as a single cell but its voltage is
the sum of the voltages of all the cells. Most practical electrochemical
batteries, such as 9 volt flashlight (torch) batteries and 12 V automobile
(car) batteries, have several cells connected in series inside the casing.
Parallel arrangements suffer from the problem that, if one cell discharges
faster than its neighbor, current will flow from the full cell to the empty
cell, wasting power and possibly causing overheating. Even worse, if one cell
becomes short-circuited due to an internal fault, its neighbor will be forced
to discharge its maximum current into the faulty cell, leading to overheating
and possibly explosion. Cells in parallel are therefore usually fitted with an
electronic circuit to protect them against these problems. In both series and
parallel types, the energy stored in the battery is equal to the sum of the
energies stored in all the cells.
Effect of a battery's internal resistance
A battery can be simply modeled as a perfect voltage source (i.e. one with
zero internal resistance) in series with a resistor. The voltage source
depends mainly on the chemistry of the battery, not on whether it is empty or
full. When a battery runs down, its internal resistance increases. When the
battery is connected to a load (e.g. a light bulb), which has its own
resistance, the resulting voltage across the load depends on the ratio of the
battery's internal resistance to the resistance of the load. When the battery
is fresh, its internal resistance is low, so the voltage across the load is
almost equal to that of the battery's internal voltage source. As the battery
runs down and its internal resistance increases, the voltage drop across its
internal resistance increases, so the voltage at its terminals decreases, and
the battery's ability to deliver power to the load decreases.