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Producing and Measuring Elecrical Quantities
Cells and Batteries

Section 1-3 Types of Cells

The development of new and different types of cells in the past decade has been so rapid that it is virtually impossible to have a complete knowledge of all the various types. A few recent developments are the silver-zinc, nickel-zinc, nickel-cadmium, silver-cadmium, organic and inorganic lithium, and mercury cells.

Primary Dry Cell

The dry cell is the most popular type of primary cell. It is ideal for simple applications where an inexpensive and noncritical source of electricity is all that is needed.

The dry cell is not actually dry. The electrolyte is not in a liquid state, but is a moist paste. If it should become totally dry, it would no longer be able to transform chemical energy to electrical energy.


Construction of a Dry Cell. The construction of a common type of dry cell is shown in this figure. These dry cells are also referred to as Leclanche, cells. The internal parts of the cell are located in a cylindrical zinc container.

This zinc container serves as the negative electrode (cathode) of the cell. The container is lined with a nonconducting material, such as blotting paper, to separate the zinc from the paste. A carbon electrode is located in the center, and it serves as the positive terminal (anode) of the cell. The paste is a mixture of several substances such as ammonium chloride, powdered coke, ground carbon, manganese dioxide, zinc chloride, graphite, and water.

This paste, which is packed in the space between the anode and the blotting paper, also serves to hold the anode rigid in the center of the cell. When the paste is packed in the cell, a small space is left at the top for expansion of the electrolytic paste caused by the depolarization action. The cell is then sealed with a cardboard or plastic seal.

Since the zinc container is the cathode, it must be protected with some insulating material to be electrically isolated. Therefore, it is common practice for the manufacturer to enclose the cells in cardboard and metal containers.

The dry cell is basically the same as the simple voltaic cell (wet cell) described earlier, as far as its internal chemical action is concerned. The action of the water and the ammonium chloride in the paste, together with the zinc and carbon electrodes, produces the voltage of the cell. Manganese dioxide is added to reduce polarization when current flows and zinc chloride reduces local action when the cell is not being used.

A cell that is not being used (sitting on the shelf) will gradually deteriorate because of slow internal chemical changes (local action). This deterioration is usually very slow if cells are properly stored. If unused cells are stored in a cool place, their shelf life will be greatly preserved. Therefore, to minimize deterioration, they should be stored in refrigerated spaces.

The blotting paper (paste-coated pulpboard separator) serves two purposesó(1) it keeps the paste from making actual contact with the zinc container and (2) it permits the electrolyte from the paste to filter through to the zinc slowly. The cell is sealed at the top to keep air from entering and drying the electrolyte. Care should be taken to prevent breaking this seal.


Mercuric-Oxide Zinc Cell The mercuric-oxide zinc cell (mercury cell) is a primary cell that was developed during World War II. Two important assets of the mercury cell are its ability to produce current for a long period of time and a long shelf life when compared to the dry cell. The mercury cell also has a very stable output voltage and is a power source that can be made in a small physical size.

With the birth of the space program and the development of small transceivers and miniaturized equipment, a power source of small size was needed. Such equipment requires a small cell which is capable of delivering maximum electrical energy at a constant discharge voltage. The mercury cell, which is one of the smallest cells, meets these requirements.

Present mercury cells are manufactured in three basic types as shown in figure 2-5. The wound- anode type, shown in view A, has an anode composed of a corrugated zinc strip with a paper absorbent. The zinc is mixed with mercury, and the paper is soaked in the electrolyte which causes it to swell and press against the zinc and make positive contact. This process ensures that the electrolyte makes contact with the anode.

In the pressed-powder cells, shown in figure views B and C, the zinc powder for the anode is mixed prior to being pressed into shape. The absorbent shown in the figure is paper soaked in the electrolyte. The space between the inner and outer containers provides passage for any gas generated by an improper chemical balance or impurities present within the cell.

If the anode and cathode of a cell are connected together without a load, a short circuit condition exists. Short circuits (shorts) can be very dangerous. They cause excessive heat, pressure, and current flow which may cause serious damage to the cell or be a safety hazard to personnel.


Do not short the mercury cell. Shorted mercury cells have exploded with considerable force.

Other Types of Cells. There are many different types of primary cells. Because of such factors as cost, size, ease of replacement, and voltage or current needs, many types of primary cells have been developed. The following is a brief description of some of the primary cells in use today.

The Manganese Dioxide-Alkaline-Zinc Cell is similar to the zinc-carbon cell except for the electrolyte used. This type of cell offers better voltage stability and longer life than the zinc-carbon type. It also has a longer shelf life and can operate over a wide temperature range. The manganese dioxide- alkaline-zinc cell has a voltage of 1.5 volts and is available in a wide range of sizes. This cell is commonly referred to as the alkaline cell.

The Magnesium-Manganese Dioxide Cell uses magnesium as the anode material. This allows a higher output capacity over an extended period of time compared to the zinc-carbon cell. This cell produces a voltage of approximately 2 volts. The disadvantage of this type of cell is the production of hydrogen during its operation.

The Lithium-Organic Cell and the Lithium-Inorganic Cell are recent developments of a new line of high-energy cells. The main advantages of these types of cells are very high power, operation over a wide temperature range, they are lighter than most cells, and have a remarkably long shelf life of up to 20 years.


Lithium cells contain toxic materials under pressure. Do not puncture, recharge, short-circuit, expose to excessively high temperatures, or incinerate. Use these batteries/cells only in approved equipment. Do not throw in trash.

Secondary Wet Cells

Secondary cells are sometimes known as wet cells. There are four basic type of wet cells, the lead- acid, nickel-cadmium, silver-zinc, and silver-cadmium.

Lead-Acid Cell.The lead-acid cell is the most widely used secondary cell. The previous explanation of the secondary cell describes exactly the manner in which the lead-acid cell provides electrical power. The discharging and charging action presented in electrochemical action describes the lead-acid cell.

You should recall that the lead-acid cell has an anode of lead peroxide, a cathode of sponge lead, and the electrolyte is sulfuric acid and water.

Nickel-Cadmium Cell. The nickel-cadmium cell (NiCad) is far superior to the lead-acid cell. In comparison to lead-acid cells, these cells generally require less maintenance throughout their service life in regard to the adding of electrolyte or water. The major difference between the nickel-cadmium cell and the lead-acid cell is the material used in the cathode, anode, and electrolyte. In the nickel-cadmium cell the cathode is cadmium hydroxide, the anode is nickel hydroxide, and the electrolyte is potassium hydroxide and water.

The nickel-cadmium and lead-acid cells have capacities that are comparable at normal discharge rates, but at high discharge rates the nickel-cadmium cell can deliver a larger amount of power. In addition the nickel-cadmium cell can:

  1. Be charged in a shorter time,
  2. Stay idle longer in any state of charge and keep a full charge when stored for a longer period of time
  3. Be charged and discharged any number of times without any appreciable damage.

Due to their superior capabilities, nickel-cadmium cells are being used extensively in many military and aerospace applications that require a cell with a high discharge rate. A good example is in the aircraft storage battery.

Silver-Zinc Cells.The silver-zinc cell is used extensively to power emergency equipment. This type of cell is relatively expensive and can be charged and discharged fewer times than other types of cells. When compared to the lead-acid or nickel-cadmium cells, these disadvantages are overweighed by the light weight, small size, and good electrical capacity of the silver-zinc cell.

The silver-zinc cell uses the same electrolyte as the nickel-cadmium cell (potassium hydroxide and water), but the anode and cathode differ from the nickel-cadmium cell. The anode is composed of silver oxide and the cathode is made of zinc.

.Silver-Cadmium Cell The silver-cadmium cell is a fairly recent development for use in storage batteries. The silver- cadmium cell combines some of the better features of the nickel-cadmium and silver-zinc cells. It has more than twice the shelf life of the silver-zinc cell and can be recharged many more times. The disadvantages of the silver-cadmium cell are high cost and low voltage production.

The electrolyte of the silver-cadmium cell is potassium hydroxide and water as in the nickel- cadmium and silver-zinc cells. The anode is silver oxide as in the silver-zinc cell and the cathode is cadmium hydroxide as in the nicad cell. You may notice that different combinations of materials are used to form the electrolyte, cathode, and anode of different cells. These combinations provide the cells with different qualities for many varied applications.



David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015