Science Post: What do you know about lithium batteries (Part 2)

Science Post: What do you know about lithium batteries (Part 2)

History

Italian physicist Alessandro Volta built and described the first electrochemical battery, the voltaic pile, in 1800. This was a stack of copper and zinc plates, separated by brine-soaked paper disks, that could produce a steady current for a considerable length of time. Volta did not understand that the voltage was due to chemical reactions. He thought that his cells were an inexhaustible source of energy, and that the associated corrosion effects at the electrodes were a mere nuisance, rather than an unavoidable consequence of their operation, as Michael Faraday showed in 1834.

Although early batteries were of great value for experimental purposes, in practice their voltages fluctuated and they could not provide a large current for a sustained period. The Daniell cell, invented in 1836 by British chemist John Frederic Daniell, was the first practical source of electricity, becoming an industry standard and seeing widespread adoption as a power source for electrical telegraph networks. It consisted of a copper pot filled with a copper sulfate solution, in which was immersed an unglazed earthenware container filled with sulfuric acid and a zinc electrode.

These wet cells used liquid electrolytes, which were prone to leakage and spillage if not handled correctly. Many used glass jars to hold their components, which made them fragile and potentially dangerous. These characteristics made wet cells unsuitable for portable appliances. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the invention of dry cell batteries, which replaced the liquid electrolyte with a paste, made portable electrical devices practical.

Categories and types of batteries

Batteries are classified into primary and secondary forms:

  • Primary batteries are designed to be used until exhausted of energy then discarded. Their chemical reactions are generally not reversible, so they cannot be recharged. When the supply of reactants in the battery is exhausted, the battery stops producing current and is useless.
  • Secondary batteries can be recharged; that is, they can have their chemical reactions reversed by applying electric currentto the cell. This regenerates the original chemical reactants, so they can be used, recharged, and used again multiple times.

Some types of primary batteries used, for example, for telegraph circuits, were restored to operation by replacing the electrodes. Secondary batteries are not indefinitely rechargeable due to dissipation of the active materials, loss of electrolyte and internal corrosion.

Primary

Primary batteries, or primary cells, can produce current immediately on assembly. These are most commonly used in portable devices that have low current drain, are used only intermittently, or are used well away from an alternative power source, such as in alarm and communication circuits where other electric power is only intermittently available. Disposable 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. In general, these have higher energy densities than rechargeable batteries, but disposable batteries do not fare well under high-drain applications with loads under 75 ohms (75 Ω). Common types of disposable batteries include zinc–carbon batteries and alkaline batteries.

Secondary

Secondary batteries, also known as secondary cells, or rechargeable batteries, must be charged before first use; they are usually assembled with active materials in the discharged state. Rechargeable batteries are (re)charged by applying electric current, which reverses the chemical reactions that occur during discharge/use. Devices to supply the appropriate current are called chargers.

The oldest form of rechargeable battery is the lead–acid battery, which are widely used in automotive and boating applications. This technology contains liquid electrolyte 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 it produces during overcharging. The lead–acid battery is relatively heavy for the amount of electrical energy it can supply. Its low manufacturing cost and its high surge current levels make it common where its capacity (over approximately 10 Ah) is more important than weight and handling issues. A common application is the modern car battery, which can, in general, deliver a peak current of 450 amperes.

The sealed valve regulated lead–acid battery (VRLA battery) is popular in the automotive industry as a replacement for the lead–acid wet cell. The VRLA battery uses an immobilized sulfuric acid electrolyte, reducing the chance of leakage and extending shelf life. VRLA batteries immobilize the electrolyte. The two types are:

  • Gel batteries(or "gel cell") use a semi-solid electrolyte.
  • Absorbed Glass Mat(AGM) batteries absorb the electrolyte in a special fiberglass matting.

Other portable rechargeable batteries include several sealed "dry cell" types, that are useful in applications such as mobile phones and laptop computers. Cells of this type (in order of increasing power density and cost) include nickel–cadmium (NiCd), nickel–zinc (NiZn), nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells. Li-ion has by far the highest share of the dry cell rechargeable market. NiMH has replaced NiCd in most applications due to its higher capacity, but NiCd remains in use in power toolstwo-way radios, and medical equipment.

In the 2000s, developments include batteries with embedded electronics such as USBCELL, which allows charging an AA battery through a USB connector, nanoball batteries that allow for a discharge rate about 100x greater than current batteries, and smart battery packs with state-of-charge monitors and battery protection circuits that prevent damage on over-discharge. Low self-discharge (LSD) allows secondary cells to be charged prior to shipping.

Cell types

Many types of electrochemical cells have been produced, with varying chemical processes and designs, including galvanic cellselectrolytic cellsfuel cellsflow cells and voltaic piles.

Wet cell

A wet cell battery has a liquid electrolyte. Other names are flooded cell, since the liquid covers all internal parts or vented cell, since gases produced during operation can escape to the air. Wet cells were a precursor to dry cells and are commonly used as a learning tool for electrochemistry. They can be built with common laboratory supplies, such as beakers, for demonstrations of how electrochemical cells work. A particular type of wet cell known as a concentration cell is important in understanding corrosion. Wet cells may be primary cells (non-rechargeable) or secondary cells (rechargeable). Originally, all practical primary batteries such as the Daniell cell were built as open-top glass jar wet cells. Other primary wet cells are the Leclanche cellGrove cellBunsen cellChromic acid cellClark cell, and Weston cell. The Leclanche cell chemistry was adapted to the first dry cells. Wet cells are still used in automobile batteries and in industry for standby power for switchgear, telecommunication or large uninterruptible power supplies, but in many places batteries with gel cells have been used instead. These applications commonly use lead–acid or nickel–cadmium cells.

Dry cell

A dry cell uses a paste electrolyte, with only enough moisture to allow current to flow. Unlike a wet cell, a dry cell can operate in any orientation without spilling, as it contains no free liquid, making it suitable for portable equipment. By comparison, the first wet cells were typically fragile glass containers with lead rods hanging from the open top and needed careful handling to avoid spillage. Lead–acid batteries did not achieve the safety and portability of the dry cell until the development of the gel battery.

A common dry cell is the zinc–carbon battery, sometimes called the dry Leclanché cell, with a nominal voltage of 1.5 volts, the same as the alkaline battery (since both use the same zincmanganese dioxide combination). A standard dry cell comprises a zinc anode, usually in the form of a cylindrical pot, with a carbon cathode in the form of a central rod. The electrolyte is ammonium chloride in the form of a paste next to the zinc anode. The remaining space between the electrolyte and carbon cathode is taken up by a second paste consisting of ammonium chloride and manganese dioxide, the latter acting as a depolariser. In some designs, the ammonium chloride is replaced by zinc chloride.

Molten salt

Molten salt batteries are primary or secondary batteries that use a molten salt as electrolyte. They operate at high temperatures and must be well insulated to retain heat.

Reserve

reserve battery can be stored unassembled (unactivated and supplying no power) for a long period (perhaps years). When the battery is needed, then it is assembled (e.g., by adding electrolyte); once assembled, the battery is charged and ready to work. For example, a battery for an electronic artillery fuze might be activated by the impact of firing a gun. The acceleration breaks a capsule of electrolyte that activates the battery and powers the fuze's circuits. Reserve batteries are usually designed for a short service life (seconds or minutes) after long storage (years). A water-activated battery for oceanographic instruments or military applications becomes activated on immersion in water.

Cell performance

A battery's characteristics may vary over load cycle, over charge cycle, and over lifetime due to many factors including internal chemistry, current drain, and temperature. At low temperatures, a battery cannot deliver as much power. As such, in cold climates, some car owners install battery warmers, which are small electric heating pads that keep the car battery warm.

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