battery, electric

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

battery, electric

electric battery, device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy, consisting of a group of electric cells that are connected to act as a source of direct current. The term is also now commonly used for a single cell, such as the alkaline dry cell used in flashlights and portable tape players, but strictly speaking batteries are made up of connected cells encased in a container and fitted with terminals to provide a source of direct electric current at a given voltage. A cell consists of two dissimilar substances, a positive electrode and a negative electrode, that conduct electricity, and a third substance, an electrolyte, that acts chemically on the electrodes. The two electrodes are connected by an external circuit (e.g., a piece of copper wire); the electrolyte functions as an ionic conductor for the transfer of the electrons between the electrodes. The voltage, or electromotive force, depends on the chemical properties of the substances used, but is not affected by the size of the electrodes or the amount of electrolyte.

Batteries are classed as either dry cell or wet cell. In a dry cell the electrolyte is absorbed in a porous medium, or is otherwise restrained from flowing. In a wet cell the electrolyte is in liquid form and free to flow and move. Batteries also can be generally divided into two main types—rechargeable and nonrechargeable, or disposable. Disposable batteries, also called primary cells, can be used until the chemical changes that induce the electrical current supply are complete, at which point the battery is discarded. Disposible batteries are most commonly used in smaller, portable devices that are only used intermittently or at a large distance from an alternative power source or have a low current drain. Rechargeable batteries, also called secondary cells, can be reused after being drained. This is done by applying an external electrical current, which causes the chemical changes that occur in use to be reversed. The external devices that supply the appropriate current are called chargers or rechargers.

The storage battery is generally a battery of the wet-cell type; i.e., it uses a liquid electrolyte and can be recharged many times. The storage battery consists of several cells connected in series. Each cell contains a number of alternately positive and negative plates separated by the liquid electrolyte. The positive plates of the cell are connected to form the positive electrode; similarly, the negative plates form the negative electrode. In the process of charging, the cell is made to operate in reverse of its discharging operation; i.e., current is forced through the cell in the opposite direction, causing the reverse of the chemical reaction that ordinarily takes place during discharge, so that electrical energy is converted into stored chemical energy. The storage battery's greatest use has been in the automobile where it was used to start the internal-combustion engine. Improvements in battery technology have resulted in vehicles—some in commercial use—in which the battery system supplies power to electric drive motors instead.

Batteries are made of a wide variety of electrodes and electrolytes to serve a wide variety of uses. Batteries consisting of carbon-zinc dry cells connected in various ways (as well as batteries consisting of other types of dry cells) are used to power such devices as flashlights, lanterns, and pocket-sized radios and CD players. Alkaline dry cells are an efficient battery type that is both economical and reliable. In alkaline batteries, the hydrous alkaline solution is used as an electrolyte; the dry cell lasts much longer as the zinc anode corrodes less rapidly under basic conditions than under acidic conditions. In the United States the lead storage battery is commonly used. A more expensive type of lead-acid battery called a gel battery (or gel cell) contains a semisolid electrolyte to prevent spillage. 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 (nicad or NiCd), nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium-ion (Li-Ion) cells.

There is evidence that primitive batteries were used in Iraq and Egypt as early as 200 BC for electroplating and precious metal gilding. In 1748, Benjamin Franklin coined the term battery to describe an array of charged glass plates. However, most historians date the invention of batteries to about 1800 when experiments by Alessandro Volta resulted in the generation of electrical current from chemical reactions between dissimilar metals. Experiments with different combinations of metals and electrolytes continued over the next 60 years. In the 1860s, Georges Leclanche of France developed a carbon-zinc wet cell; nonrechargeable, it was rugged, manufactured easily, and had a reasonable shelf life. Also in the 1860s, Raymond Gaston Plant invented the lead-acid battery. It had a short shelf life, and about 1881 Émile Alphonse Faure developed batteries using a mixture of lead oxides for the positive plate electrolyte with faster reactions and higher efficiency. In 1900, Thomas Alva Edison developed the nickel storage battery, and in 1905 the nickel-iron battery. During World War II the mercury cell was produced. The small alkaline battery was introduced in 1949. In the 1950s the improved alkaline-manganese battery was developed. In 1954 the first solar battery or solar cell was introduced, and in 1956 the hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell was introduced. The 1960s saw the invention of the gel-type electrolyte lead-acid battery. Lithium-ion batteries, wafer thin and powering portable computers, cell phones, and space probes were introduced in the 1990s. Computer chips and sensors now help prolong battery life and speed the charging cycle. Sensors monitor the temperature inside a battery as chemical reactions during the recharging cause it to heat up; microchips control the power flow during recharging so that current flows in rapidly when the batteries are drained and then increasingly slowly as the batteries become fully charged. Another source of technical progress is nanotechnology; research indicates that batteries employing carbon nanotubes will have twice the life of traditional batteries.

See also electric circuit; fuel cell; solar cell.

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