Alessandro Volta accidentally created the first battery in 1800. He was trying to prove to a fellow scientist that it was not necessary to use animal tissue to produce an electric current. Volta was successful in winning his debate and then some. The unforeseen invention of the electrochemical cell brought Volta many honors. Yet, he remained a very modest man.
After his passing, Volta’s face appeared on stamps as well as the 10,000 Italian Lire banknote, which left circulation in 2002. Volta’s name lives on as others commemorated his work by naming the volt after him, a unit we use to measure the force of electric currents.
But what is it that Volta discovered that made the battery work? In this article, we’ll dive deep into answering frequently asked questions, including: how do batteries work, what are they made of, what types of batteries are there today, and what problems do we have with batteries?
Batteries are one of those things that the majority of us take for granted. They’re just a regular part of everyday life that, for the most part, go unseen while they store energy and perform their magic. Think flashlights, cell phones, remote controls, hearing aids, car batteries, and even electric cars.
But have you ever stopped to really try and understand how these indispensable products that provide us with portable, instant energy actually work? Batteries are self-contained power packs that store chemical energy and convert it into electrical energy. The process is known as electrochemistry. To explain the process of how batteries work in more depth, let’s get into the details of what batteries are made of.
A battery usually will consist of a group of electrochemical cells. There are two different types: voltaic (also referred to as galvanic) and electrolytic.
Let’s look at an example of the two types of cells. When something with a rechargeable battery — like your cell phone or tablet — is on the charger, the battery is functioning as an electrolytic cell. However, while you’re using your electronic device, the battery is working as a voltaic cell.
A standard battery cell requires the following three elements to produce electricity:
The two different metals (the anode and cathode) are attached to the battery at opposite ends from each other. This allows a chemical reaction to occur between the electrolyte and the metals, allowing more electrons to release through one metal than the other.
A positive charge develops in the metal that receives a more significant amount of electrons. A negative charge then forms on the opposite side. Then, when a wire, or external circuit, connects the two battery ends to each other, the flow of electrons moves through the wire, balancing the electrical charge and producing an electric current.
The final step is to introduce what we call an electrical load. This is anything that needs electricity to operate. Let’s use a flashlight as an example. When you put the batteries into the flashlight and flip the switch on, you create a circuit. This circuit connects its light bulb to the wire, allowing electrical energy to flow through the wire and the bulb as electrons pass through the battery’s negative end, through the wire, the light bulb, and back to the battery’s positive end.
Energy storage has come a long way over the years. Today, two of the main places we store energy are batteries and capacitors. And while they’re very similar, they are not the same. Let’s look at the similarities and differences between the two.
Here are the main similarities between batteries and capacitors:
Engineers will choose whether to use a battery or capacitor for their product based on the circuit design and its function. Sometimes, they go with a combination of the two. However, that doesn’t mean the two are completely interchangeable.
Here are the main differences between batteries and capacitors:
Alternating current (AC) is a flow of electrons that switches directions regularly, many times a second. The majority of our household appliances run on AC power. For example, the majority of our microwaves, coffee pots, dishwashers, televisions, and even our HVAC systems run on alternating current. However, since battery electrons flow only in one direction, batteries generate direct current (DC). Many portable devices, such as flashlights, cell phones, and mp3 players, run on the DC power provided by batteries.
Not all batteries are equal. Different types of batteries are made with other chemicals and work with various chemical reactions. Let’s take a look at seven of the more common types of batteries.
Duracell® and Energizer® are two popular brands that make alkaline batteries. These are our standard AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-volt batteries. The electrodes in these batteries are manganese oxide and zinc. The electrolyte is an alkaline paste of either potassium or sodium hydroxide.
Lead acid batteries are what we use for car batteries and photovoltaic solar power systems. The electrodes in these batteries are lead and lead oxide, while the electrolyte is a strong acid.
Cameras with flash bulbs use lithium batteries, but otherwise, most lithium batteries you come across are coin or button-cell-shaped for things like watches and other small, low-power devices. While they don’t give much power, you can stack lithium batteries to get a higher voltage. All lithium batteries use metallic lithium as the anode and are non-rechargeable. For this reason, they’re also called primary lithium metal batteries. The cathode will vary, but the most common lithium metal batteries typically use manganese dioxide.
Cell phones and other portable electronic equipment typically are powered by a lithium-ion battery, which is rechargeable. Additionally, lithium-ion batteries have become popular to use for electric vehicles and larger-scale smart grids. For the anode, lithium-ion batteries use lithium-carbon compounds. The cathode uses lithium-metal oxides.
We find nickel-cadmium batteries, which are rechargeable batteries, in power tools as well as many of our small household appliances. The electrodes in these batteries are nickel-hydroxide and cadmium, while the electrolyte is potassium hydroxide.
Also a rechargeable battery, nickel-metal hydride batteries are used in devices with a high-drain factor, like digital cameras and video game controllers. These batteries use positive electrodes of nickel oxyhydroxide, and the negative electrodes use a hydrogen-absorbing alloy.
If you purchase a product that has “batteries included,” there’s a good chance that means it has zinc-carbon batteries due to their low cost. Generally, the electrodes use zinc metal and a carbon rod surrounded by manganese dioxide. The electrolyte is made of a paste of ammonium chloride.
No product is perfect. There will always be the occasional defective piece. However, some products have more issues than others. Here are some of the main problems that consumers tend to have with batteries:
Now that we’ve answered the big question, “how do batteries work,” it’s time to have a little fun with your newfound knowledge. Try taking a walk around your house to see how many different types of batteries you use. Then, for more great information on commonly-used household products, check out our article about light bulbs to learn how you can save big money.
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How Do Batteries Work?