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Battery Knowledge Base -- 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 fiberglass 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 applications.

  • Water-activated battery - used for radiosondes and emergency applications

  • 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 metal, Cadmium.

  • 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 missions.