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Battery Basics: Evolution, Types, and Applications

Updated: Apr 3

What is a battery?

A battery is a two-terminal electrochemical device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy by a reaction called the electro-chemical oxidation-reduction (redox) reaction. This reaction involves electron transfer from one material to another through an electric circuit.


Let's dive into the history of batteries.

History of Early Batteries

In 1800, Volta discovered that particular fluids could generate an uninterrupted flow of electrical power when used as conductors. This discovery directed and guided the invention called 'First Voltaic Cell', commonly known as a battery. Volta also determines that when the voltaic cells are stacked on top of each other, there will be an increase in the voltage.

In 1802, the mass production of the first electric battery was designed by William Cruickshank. He arranged sheets of copper (square-shaped) with sheets of zinc (equal size, similar to that of the copper) into a long wooden box and soldiered them together.

The metal plates are held in position inside the box with the help of grooves. The electrolyte of brine or watered-down acid is then filled in the sealed box. This is the first flooded battery, which has the advantage of not drying out when used.This setup provided energy, which is greater than Volta's discovery.

History of rechargeable batteries

In 1836, an English chemist named John F. Daniell developed a battery that delivers a steadier current than the earlier attempts to store electrical energy.

In 1859, a French physician named Gaston Plante developed the first rechargeable battery. This battery was composed of lead acid, which is the form of the system in which we use it at present. Till then, all types of batteries were primary, i.e., they could not be recharged.

In 1899, Waldmar Jugner, from Sweden, developed the NiCd battery (Nickel-Cadmium). This battery used nickel as the cathode and cadmium as the anode. The material costs for this NiCd battery are high compared to lead, which limits its usage.

After 2 years, Thomas Edison replaced cadmium with iron, and this battery was called Nickel-Iron (NiFe). The nickel-iron battery was not successful for the following reasons:

  • Low-specific energy

  • At low temperatures, performance was poor.

  • High self-discharge

  • For portable apps, the only battery that was rechargeable was NiCd.

In the 1990s, European environmentalists found out about the harm caused when NiCd batteries are disposed of carelessly. Nickel-metal-hydride is the alternative for this and is environmentally friendly.

Since 1991, the world has started to improve lithium-based systems (Li-ion).

The benefits of a Li-ion battery are

  • High-specific energy

  • Simple charging mechanism

  • Maintenance is low.

  • Environmental friendly

The basic components of a battery

A battery consists of two terminals called the cathode and the anode, and they are separated by a chemical material called an electrolyte. A battery is comprised of one or more electrochemical cells that can be charged with current and discharged.

The basic components of a battery
The basic components of a battery

Batteries are widely employed to power small electric devices—mobiles, flashlights, and remotes.

Types of Batteries

  • Primary Battery

  • Secondary Battery

Primary Battery

The primary battery can be charged only once. Once primary batteries are discharged completely, they should be discarded and of no use. These are use-and-throw batteries.

Primary Battery
Primary Battery

Why can primary batteries not be recharged?

The electrochemical reaction that occurs inside the primary battery is irreversible in nature.

Secondary Battery

A secondary battery can be charged and reused for many cycles. The electrochemical reaction that occurs inside the battery is reversible in nature; hence, secondary batteries are termed "rechargeable batteries."

Secondary Battery or Rechargeable Battery
Secondary Battery or Rechargeable Battery

Significant examples of batteries

  • Lead-acid battery

  • Nickel-cadmium battery (NiCad battery)

  • Lithium-ion battery (LIB battery)

Lead-acid battery

This is one of the earliest rechargeable batteries. Electrochemical cells in this battery are known to have a fairly greater power-to-weight ratio. This battery has the capability to produce strong surge currents. It has a low cost, and it is used in motor vehicles and automobiles as it delivers high current for starting the engine.

Lead Acid Battery for Motor Cycle
Lead Acid Battery for Motor Cycle

Primary Characteristics of Lead-Acid Batteries

  • For three years, this battery can hold an electric charge.

  • It is ideal for emergency power backup.

  • One of the most inexpensive batteries

Nickel-cadmium battery (NiCad battery)

This battery is rechargeable. It contains metallic cadmium and nickel oxide hydroxide as the electrodes for the battery. It offers different discharge rates that are based on the size of the battery itself.

Nickel Cadmium Battery
Nickel Cadmium Battery

Primary Characteristics NiCad Battery

  • Fast and uniform discharge of electrical energy

  • commonly available and comparatively inexpensive

  • Used in toys, electrical devices, and remotes.

Lithium-ion battery (LIB battery)

It is a type of secondary battery (rechargeable) and is widely used in apps such as powering electric vehicles and the aerospace industry. During the process of discharging the lithium ions inside the batteries, they are known to pass from the negative electrode to the positive electrode through an electrolyte. These ions will travel back during the charging process. This battery uses an intercalated lithium compound in the positive electrode and graphite in the negative electrode as the fuel.

Lithium-ion battery
Lithium-ion battery

Primary Characteristics LIB Battery

  • High energy capacity, which is twice that of the NiCad battery

  • Very low self-discharge

  • Stable and safe batteries

  • Used in mobiles, computers, tablets, and laptops

Battery classification based on electrolyte

Based on the type of electrolyte used, batteries are classified as

  • Wet cell batteries

  • Dry-cell batteries

Wet cell batteries

Wet cell batteries are electric batteries that are comprised of liquid electrolytes. Wet cell batteries are otherwise called vented cells or flooded cells. In many electrochemistry laboratories, wet-cell batteries are used as learning tools. A wet cell need not be a primary cell. Both primary and secondary batteries can be constructed from the liquid electrolytes.

Dry-cell batteries

Dry cell batteries are electrochemical cells in which the electrolyte is in the form of paste. The electrolyte contains only enough moisture to allow the current to flow. There is no fear of spillage in these cells, and they can be used in a wide range of orientations. Since there is no free liquid in dry cells, they are most commonly used in electronic devices.

Working Principles of Batteries

A battery operates on the principle of an electrochemical cell, where chemical reactions convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy. In an electrochemical cell, two electrodes (anode and cathode), typically made of different materials, are immersed in an electrolyte solution.

The battery is designed to keep the cathode and anode separated from each other to prevent a chemical reaction. Only when the circuit is closed will the stored electrons flow. When the circuit is closed, the cathode pulls the electron from the anode through the wire in the circuit to the cathode electrode. This flow of electrons through wire is called electricity.

Operation of Lithium Ion Battery
Operation of Lithium Ion Battery

Operation Principle for Charging the Battery

When the electrons move from the cathode to the anode, this increases the chemical potential energy, and the charging process occurs.

Operation Principle for Discharging the Battery

When the electrons move in another direction, they convert the chemical potential energy to electricity in the circuit, and discharging the battery occurs.

How do batteries and power supplies work together?

Charging a battery

When you connect a battery to a power supply, the power supply is used to provide electrical energy to the battery, charging it. In this case, the positive terminal of the power supply is typically connected to the positive terminal of the battery, and the negative terminal of the power supply is connected to the negative terminal of the battery. The voltage and current specifications of the power supply should be compatible with the charging requirements of the battery.

Using a Battery in Conjunction with a Power Supply

In some cases, a battery may be used in conjunction with a power supply to ensure continuous power, especially in applications where uninterrupted power is critical. The power supply is connected to the circuit, and the battery is connected in parallel. The battery serves as a backup power source, and the power supply charges the battery while providing power to the circuit.

Powering devices simultaneously

Batteries and power supplies can be connected in parallel to power a device simultaneously.

For example, a device may have a power supply connected to it and a rechargeable battery connected in parallel.The device is powered by the power supply, which simultaneously charges the battery.

Switching Between Battery and Power Supply

Some systems are designed to automatically switch between battery power and power supply depending on availability. When the power supply is connected, it powers the device and may also charge the battery. If the power supply fails, the system switches to battery power to maintain operation.

It's important to note that when connecting a battery to a power supply or any external power source, the voltage and current levels must be compatible to avoid damaging the battery. Additionally, charging and discharging considerations should be taken into account to ensure the safe and effective operation of the battery within its specified parameters.

Difference between battery and electrolytic cell

A battery and an electrolytic cell are both devices that involve electrochemical processes, but they serve different purposes and operate in distinct ways.


Electrolytic Cell

A battery is a electrochemical device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy.

An electrolytic cell is a device used to drive a non-spontaneous chemical reaction using an external electrical energy source.

It consists of one or more electrochemical cells connected in series or parallel to increase voltage or capacity.

Electrolytic cells are commonly used for processes like electroplating, electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen and oxygen, and other industrial applications.

Each cell within a battery has three main components: an anode (negative electrode), a cathode (positive electrode), and an electrolyte (conducting medium).

It contains two electrodes, namely the anode and cathode, which are submerged in an electrolyte.

During discharge (when the battery is in use), chemical reactions occur at the electrodes, releasing electrons that flow through an external circuit, generating electrical power.

When an external voltage is applied across the electrodes (usually through a power source), electrons flow through the circuit, causing a non-spontaneous redox reaction to take place.

Common types of batteries include alkaline batteries, lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries, and nickel-metal hydride batteries.

Electrolytic cells are commonly used for processes like electroplating, electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen and oxygen, and other industrial applications.

To put it concisely, a battery is a device that generates electrical energy through spontaneous chemical reactions, while an electrolytic cell is a device that consumes electrical energy to drive a non-spontaneous chemical reaction. Both involve electrochemical processes and are crucial in various applications, from powering electronic devices to industrial processes.

Applications of Batteries

  • Batteries serve as compact, rechargeable energy resource to charge devices such as remote controls, torches, wall clocks, flashlights, hearing aids, weight scales, digital cameras, mobile phones, batteries of vehicles, and home maintenance tools.

  • Used to make devices like electrocardiograms, glucose meters, and infusion pumps

  • Used in ECG monitors and metal detectors

  • Used to power radio communications, night vision devices, and optical equipment

  • Used to power electric motors in vehicles

    • BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle)

    • HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle)

  • During a power outage, batteries are used to provide backup power.

  • Batteries are a useful and significant part of renewable energy systems.

Disadvantages of Battery

  • Batteries can explode if they are overheated or damaged, and they can be dangerous and difficult to extinguish.

  • They contaminate aquatic life and destroy it when batteries are exposed to water supply systems and ecosystems.

  • The manufacturing process and the raw materials of batteries can cause higher carbon emissions, which adversely affect the environment.

  • Careless and improper methods of battery disposal on land and in water cause contamination of soil and groundwater.

  • If batteries are not handled properly, they can be hazardous if they come into contact with the skin or eyes of humans due to the chemicals used in them.

Limitations of the battery

  • Degradation over time

  • Potential safety risks

  • Limited energy capacity

  • The battery type determines the energy density and lifespan.

  • Self-discharge

  • Temperature sensitivity

  • Charging time quickly produces heat, which affects the battery's health.

  • Resource dependence

  • Cost influences the affordability of the product.

  • Limited number of charge cycles

  • Degradation over repeated charge and discharge cycles

Batteries serve as a portable and versatile energy resource, powering a wide array of devices in our daily lives. As we continue to transition towards cleaner and greener energy alternatives, batteries contribute to the development of renewable energy resource and systems, acting as a crucial component for storing and delivering electricity generated from sources like solar and wind.


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