Rechargable Batteries and How they Work

With the rise in portable devices such as laptops, cell phones, MP3 players and cordless power tools, the need for rechargeable batteries has grown substantially in recent years. The concept of the rechargeable battery has been around since 1859, when French physicist Gaston Plante invented the lead acid cell, which would later become the world’s first rechargeable battery. That same chemistry is still used in today’s car battery.

The basic idea behind the rechargeable battery is simple: when electrical energy is applied to the battery, the electron flow from negative to positive that occurs during discharge is reversed and power is restored. This requires an adapter in the case of devices with built-in batteries or for standard nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal hydride batteries, the most common multi-use rechargeable batteries used today in your remote control, flashlight or digital camera.

Car batteries are one of the oldest kinds of rechargeable batteries and in fact, the electric car predates its gas-powered cousin. In a standard car, there is a single lead-acid SLI battery that supplies power to the starter, lights and ignition system. The battery charger in this case is the alternator, a clever device that converts gasoline power to electrical energy and distributes it where needed. In electric and hybrid cars, traction batteries are used to power the vehicle down the road. Traction batteries come in many varieties, from lead acid, to nickel-cadmium, nickel metal hydride and lithium ion.

The recharging rate has improved substantially over the years and is broken down into three categories:

  • Slow: 14-16 hours
  • Quick: 3-6 hours
  • Fast: Less than one hour

The rate of charge is determined by how much electrical current is allowed into the battery by the charger. Some batteries can handle higher voltage in a shorter amount of time without overheating, while others need a lesser voltage applied over a longer period of time. The quicker the rate of charge, the more chance there is of over charging, which can ruin a battery’s chance of holding its charge. The key in avoiding an over charge is the ability to dissipate the charging current once maximum power has been reached. Most chargers have built-in voltage regulators do this, allowing you to safely leave your cell phone or computer plugged in overnight.

The speed and effectiveness of the charge depends largely on the quality of the charger itself. Chargers vary in performance based on the price tag and like most products you get what you pay for. Chargers are generally designed for specific cell chemistries, although newer universal chargers have sensors built in that identify the cell type and react appropriately. There are also smart chargers that use a microprocessor to monitor temperature, voltage and state of charge, which is the percentage of power available compared to its full capacity.

One common problem in nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries is something known as the memory effect. This is when the battery is continually recharged before it has discharged more than 50 percent of its power, causing it to essentially forget that it could fully discharge to begin with. Memory effect is caused by the formation of hard-to-dissolve cadmium crystals deep within the battery. Cadmium crystals are an unavoidable by-product of discharge; the trick is to keep them small enough to be reformed as cadmium during the charging process. When a battery is not fully discharged, the crystals deep within the battery are not affected by the influx of electrical current, so they are not reformed as cadmium and can grow into the troublesome larger cadmium crystals. The battery will still function normally, but is maxed out at 50 percent. The memory effect can be avoided by fully cycling the battery once every two to three weeks by allowing it to discharge completely, and then fully recharge.

It’s important to remember that no battery, rechargeable or otherwise, will last forever. All batteries suffer from aging cells and the longer they are used, the less capacity they ultimately will have. Rechargeable batteries are still a great way to save money and reduce waste.

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