Why are there so many different types of batteries?

This article originally appeared on The conversation.

If you've been looking through your tool drawer lately, you may have noticed the different shapes, sizes, and types of batteries that power your electronic devices. First, there are the round, non-rechargeable button cells for your watches and small items. There are also the popular cylindrical AA and AAA batteries for calculators, clocks and remote controls. Then you have the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in your laptops and phones. And don't forget the lead-acid battery in your car.

I'm a professor who studies batteries and electrochemistry. To understand why there are many batteries different sizes and shapes– and serves many purposes – look to the past, to how batteries came into existence and how they have developed over the years.

The first batteries were made in the 19th century and were quite simple. One of the first demonstrations was a series of metal discs soaked in brine, which the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta discovered created an electric current. The first lead-acid battery was made of a a few pieces of lead in a jar of sulfuric acid. The modern versions are not that different. They are simply easier to manufacture and contain various additives to improve performance.

In all cases, batteries perform the same way: a voltage difference between two dissimilar electrodes produces an electric current, which can be discharged to power a device. Rechargeable batteries can then reverse this current to recharge. In the battery, the electric current is accompanied by the flow of ions through a liquid, the electrolyte.

The passage of each electron in the current is accompanied by the transport of one ion through the electrolyte. Electrodes that can store more ions lead to batteries that can hold more charge and therefore last longer on a single charge. Electrodes designed for faster ion storage lead to batteries that can discharge faster, for high-power applications. Finally, charging and discharging many times without loss of quality leads to batteries with a long lifespan.

Lead-acid batteries

The lead-acid battery was the first rechargeable battery invented in 1859 by Gaston Plantewho experimented with lead plates in an acidic solution and discovered that the flow and storage of electric current could be reversed.

A lead-acid battery must be large enough to provide enough charge to start a car. It should also be usable in cold climates and last for many years. Because the electrolyte is a corrosive acid, the external housing must be sturdy to protect people and car parts from possible damage. Knowing all this, it makes sense that modern lead-acid batteries are blocky and heavy.

Alkaline batteries

On the other hand, home appliances like calculators and digital scales can afford to use smaller batteries since they don't require much charging. These are mainly non-rechargeable alkaline batteries that have been used for decades. The standardized cell sizes are AAAA, AAA, AA, C and D, as well as button and button cells and many others. Their size is related to the amount of charge they store (the larger the battery, the more it can hold) and the size of the devices they power.

Sometimes you will find alkaline batteries sold in rectangular shapes, like regular 9-volt batteries, but open the outer housing and you will find that it is simply a pair of cylindrical cells connected together within. Cylindrical batteries have been around so long and in so widespread use that it simply doesn't make sense for the companies to produce anything else; it would require an investment to change their production facilities, something they would rather not do.

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