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All About Batteries, Part 1: Introduction
Ivan Cowie Ivan Cowie
12/4/2013 03:25 PM EST  
 36 comments

I'm a 30-plus-year veteran of electrical engineering with experience that spans many areas, including digital, analog, power, communications, and microcontrollers. I work for a company called MaxVision, which makes extreme-performance, ruggedized, transportable workstations. By some strange quirk of fate, Max Maxfield the (world's go-to techno guy) has his office in the same building as mine. Over the years, he has had to tolerate my very bad punny humor attempts over the coffee table, since we share a kitchen in our building.

One day, while I was contemplating a new joke to inflict upon everyone, I overheard a conversation between Max and our mechanical design expert, Eugene "Willie" Richards, about what type of batteries would be the best option for Max's robot project. Since I have considerable knowledge about batteries (robots too), and I was feeling some remorse about my previous puns, I held off on the jokes and offered my assistance.

Max said it would be useful to a lot of readers if I wrote a series of columns on batteries -- beginning with types, technologies, terminologies, specifications, and environment. Later we will cover specific types of batteries in more detail, considering most everything required to understand and select the appropriate technology for a particular application. Once we've considered everything in excruciating detail, we will be in a position to advise Max about the optimal battery technology for his robot.

The battery was invented by Alessandro Volta of Italy in 1800. I'm sure Volta would be amazed by how ubiquitous (and varied) his invention has become. Having said this, for some tasks, it might be more appropriate to select a capacitor, rather than a battery. Surprised? Well, you might at least consider using a capacitor whenever it is assured to have a regular, high-surge-capable supply of electricity. In some cases involving very light loads, it might even be possible to ignore the regular power application -- just charge a super-capacitor once, and it will survive all the way until discarded. Once we have discussed battery terminologies and technologies, the capacitor versus battery choice will hopefully become clear.

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing the battery technology for a particular application. In addition to relative size, weight, and cost (from cheap to expensive to "if you have to ask, you can't afford it"), the main considerations and factors I plan on covering in this series are as follows:

  • Environment (operating and storage): Temperature, air pressure, altitude, mechanical strain, vibration, mounting position, radiation hardening, corrosive attack, packaging/shape, storage or shelf life, disposal, waste products produced and outgassing, consumables required, safety, and materials/RoHS
  • Application: Types (including primary, secondary, and smart), technology, chemistries, efficiency and loss, charge/discharge cycle count and rates, depth of discharge, service life, memory effect, charging techniques, capacitor/battery hybrid, use cases, capacity, density (energy and weight), protection circuitry, measuring and gas gauge, quality, reliability, and recharge and run times

Since Volta's first crude models, many types of batteries have come into use. Some of these technologies are as follows.

PbXLead-acid
  
NiCdNickel cadmium
NiMHNickel metal hydride
NiZnNickel zinc
  
ZnOZinc-air
ZnCZinc-carbon
ZnCl2Zinc-chloride
ZnMnO2Zinc-manganese dioxide (alkaline)
  
LiFeS2Lithium-iron disulfide
LiMnO2Lithium-manganese dioxide
LiSOCl2Lithium thionyl chloride
LiCFXLithium poly carbon monofluoride
LiSO2Lithium sulfur dioxide
LiI2Lithium iodine
LiAlCl4Lithium aluminium chloride
LiCoO2 (LCO)Lithium cobalt oxide
LiFePO4 (LFP)Lithium iron phosphate
LiMn2O4 (LMO)Lithium manganese oxide
LiNiMnCoO2 (NMC)Lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide
LiNiCoAlO2 (NCA)Lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide
Li4Ti5O12 (LTO)lithium titanate
  
Ag2OSilver oxide
AgZnSilver-zinc
  
Na2S4 (NaS)Sodium sulfur
  
Nuclear or atomic 

I won't be able to cover all these technologies in depth -- just some of the more common and/or noteworthy ones. Please add a comment below if you think I've omitted some important technology or if you're interested in a particular one. If you need more information right now, you may find quick, specific answers to your battery-related questions at the Battery University website.

In my next column I'll cover classifications, general specifications, and terminology. Until then, please post any questions or comments below.

Related posts:

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balkrishna47
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Life of a battery
balkrishna47   12/11/2013 12:45:49 AM
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 Thanks for selecting battery as a subject.I have been  desining battery chargers in industry( Lead Acid) since 1972 for Indian Railways and Post and Telegraph Department. What I learned is they can use the LA batteries for more than 10 years. They used singal cell units with every day maintainence. However what I heard for my car battery themaximum life as per the auto repairer is one to three years as per usage of the car. Sulphatation, high starting current demand  non tubular design and mobile use (Sunjected to acceleration in all direction) being the main problem.

I also heared about polymer conductor battery that has long life (may be now being used ih cell phones) But is there any varient in capacities comparable to lead acid batteries? 

AZskibum
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Re: Blog and Battery U
AZskibum   12/7/2013 1:01:10 PM
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Yes, Battery U is an excellent resource.

Ivan, although nuclear RTGs are not for mainstream applications, I hope you will incldue them in your discussion, for the benefit of we space junkies. I have read that the old standby Pu-238 is not the optimum choice for deep space vehicle RTGs and I'm curious about the pros & cons of different radioactive isotopes for RTG use.

I also find it fascinating that even after more than 36 years in space, the 487 watt (at launch) batteries on Voyager 1 are still producing about 250 watts.

DrFPGA
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Blog and Battery U
DrFPGA   12/6/2013 12:39:52 PM
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Thanx for the excellent blog. Looking forward with anticipation to the rest. Also, thanx for the link to Battery U. Great resource.

OldOldEng
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Nickel Iron battery
OldOldEng   12/6/2013 8:54:13 AM
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Also please include the Nickel Iron battery type.  I know it has not been used for a while, but may still be usefull due to it's long life.

David Ashton
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Re: Baghdad Battery
David Ashton   12/5/2013 6:55:57 PM
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@Caleb....I'm sure there's lots of tech like this, but just consider Peltier effect - discovered in the 1830's, but only in widespread used these days for coolers etc (and rings, as you recently pointed out, though as you also pointed out this is the complimentary Seebeck effect (ie generating electricity form a temperature difference, rather than Peltier which is generating a temperature difference form a current?))

Max The Magnificent
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Re: I'm guessing Atomic is out
Max The Magnificent   12/5/2013 5:43:33 PM
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@Caleb: Hydrogen cell! having a water powered robot would be incredibly fun to say...

Ooooh, Tasty!

Caleb Kraft
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Re: Baghdad Battery
Caleb Kraft   12/5/2013 5:36:07 PM
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makes you wonder what other tech has stumbled because we didn't have the accompanying technology to make it a necessity.

Caleb Kraft
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Re: I'm guessing Atomic is out
Caleb Kraft   12/5/2013 5:35:01 PM
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Hydrogen cell! having a water powered robot would be incredibly fun to say regardless of the pain in the ass.

David Ashton
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Re: Charging Batteries
David Ashton   12/5/2013 4:15:40 PM
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@Ivan...I use a lot of NiCds and actually made up a "rejuvenator" for them to zap them with a high current for a short time, discharge, then zap again.  I did this with a  555 and entered it for the 555 competition a couple of years ago, the circuit is here:

http://stn564.hackhut.com/files/downloads/2011/02/555-NiCd-Battery-Rejuvenator.pdf

Mixed success, some batteries can't be fixed, but on some it works a treat.  You need to put a battery on the rejvenator for an hour or two, then give it a full charge at the normal rate.  I have specified 2C zap (ie a current of twice the AH capacity of the battery) but you can go to 5C or more for stubborn ones.

I just use a high current supply (eg a PC Power supply) but you can also use a capacitor to give the "zap".  I prefer a high current supply as it gives a more sustained and controllable zap.

Crusty1
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Re: Charging Batteries
Crusty1   12/5/2013 4:06:15 PM
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@Rgarvin640:Yes we used to manually use the lab power pack to step up the current to a dead NiCad untill the voltage started to drop and then discharge with a short, some times it would blow the short.

I have a lot of tales about battery use in London Underground Trains and before they were sold off Bus batteries.

I love the single cell lead acid batteries we used on the battery locomotives used to maintain track. They were very big 3 foot high an 1 foot deep float charged from the track 660 V DC during the day.

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