A battery is a machine that stores chemical energy and converts it to electrical energy.The chemistry reactions in a battery show off the flow of electron from one material (electrode) come another, with an outside circuit.The flow of electrons gives an electric existing that have the right to be provided to do work.To balance the flow of electrons, charged ions additionally flow through an electrolyte solution that is in call with both electrodes.Different electrodes and also electrolytes create different chemical reactions that affect how the battery works, exactly how much energy it deserve to store and also its voltage.

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Imagine a world without batteries. All those portable devices we’re for this reason dependent on would be for this reason limited! we’d only be able to take our laptops and phones as much as the reach of their cables, do that new running app you simply downloaded onto her phone relatively useless.

Luckily, we do have batteries. Ago in 150 BC in Mesopotamia, the Parthian culture used a device known as the Baghdad battery, make of copper and also iron electrodes with vinegar or citric acid. Archaeologists believe this were no actually batteries yet were used mostly for spiritual ceremonies.

The creation of the battery together we know it is credited to the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, who placed together the very first battery to prove a point to one more Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani. In 1780, Galvani had displayed that the foot of frogs hanging on iron or brass hooks would twitch as soon as touched through a probe of part other type of metal. He thought that this was led to by electrical energy from within the frogs’ tissues, and called that ‘animal electricity’.

Luigi Galvani uncovered that the foot of frogs suspended on brass hooks would twitch when prodded v a probe made of another kind of metal. He thought this response was caused by ‘animal electricity’ from within the frog. Image source: Luigi Galvani / Wikimedia Commons.

Volta, while initially impressed through Galvani’s findings, came to think that the electric current came native the 2 different varieties of metal (the hooks on which the frogs were hanging and also the different metal that the probe) and was simply being transmitted through, not from, the frogs’ tissues. That experimented through stacks of layers of silver and also zinc interspersed with layers of cloth or record soaked in saltwater, and also found that an electric current did in truth flow through a wire applied to both end of the pile.

Alessandro Volta’s battery: a pile of zinc and silver sheets interspersed with fabric or document soaked in saltwater. Imagine utilizing that to power your phone. Photo source: Luigi Chiesa / Wikimedia Commons.

Volta also found the by using various metals in the pile, the amount of voltage might be increased. He described his findings in a letter to Joseph Banks, climate president the the Royal society of London, in 1800. It to be a pretty big deal (Napoleon was fairly impressed!) and his creation earned him sustainedrecognition in the honour the the ‘volt’ (a measure of electrical potential) being called after him.

I myself, joking aside, am amazed how my old and brand-new discoveries the ... Pure and an easy electricity resulted in by the call of metals, can have created so much excitement.Alessandro Volta

So what exactly was happening with those class of zinc and silver, and also indeed, the twitchingfrogs’ legs?

The chemistry that a battery

A battery is a maker that stores chemical energy, and converts it come electricity. This is known as electrochemistry and the device that underpins a battery is dubbed an electrochemical cell. A battery deserve to be made up of one or numerous (like in Volta"s initial pile)electrochemical cells. Each electrochemical cell consists of 2 electrodes be separated by an electrolyte.

So whereby does an electrochemical cell get its power from? to answer this question, we need to understand what electricity is. Most simply, electrical power is a type of energy produced by the flow of electrons. In one electrochemical cell, electron are created by achemical reaction that happens in ~ one electrode (more around electrodes below!)and climate they circulation over to the various other electrode whereby they are used up. To understand this properly, we need to have actually a closer look in ~ the cell"s components, and also how they are placed together.


To create a flow of electrons, you require to have somewhere because that the electron to flow from, and also somewhere because that the electron to flow to. These room the cell electrodes. The electrons circulation from one electrode referred to as the anode (or an adverse electrode) to another electrode dubbed the cathode (the optimistic electrode). These are usually different species of steels or other chemical compounds.

In Volta’s pile, the anode was the zinc, indigenous which electron flowed through the cable (when connected) come the silver, which was the battery’s cathode. That stacked many these cells together to do the total pile and crank increase the voltage.


But whereby does the anode get all this electrons from in the first place? and also why space they therefore happy to be sent out off on your merry method over come the cathode? It every comes down to the chemistry that’s going on inside the cell.

There space a pair of chemical reactions walk on the we need to understand. At the anode, the electrode reacts through the electrolyte in a reaction the produces electrons. This electrons accumulate in ~ the anode. Meanwhile, at the cathode, an additional chemical reaction occurs simultaneously that allows that electrode to expropriate electrons.

The technological chemical term because that a reaction that involves the exchange of electron is a reduction-oxidation reaction, more commonly dubbed a oxidation reaction. The entire reaction deserve to be split into two half-reactions, and in the case of an electrochemical cell, one half-reaction occurs at the anode, the other at the cathode. Palliation is the gain of electrons, and also is what occurs at the cathode; we say that the cathode is decreased during the reaction. Oxidation is the ns of electrons, so we say that the anode is oxidised.

Each of this reactions has actually a specific standard potential. Think the this characteristic together the reaction’s ability/efficiency come either produce or suck up electrons—its stamin in an electron tug-of-war.

Any two conducting materials that have actually reactions with different standard potentials can type an electrochemical cell, due to the fact that the more powerful one will be able to take electron from the weaker one. However the ideal selection for one anode would certainly be a material that to produce a reaction v a considerably lower (more negative) standard potential than the material you pick for her cathode. What we end up through is electrons being attracted to the cathode from the anode (and the anode no trying to fight an extremely much), and also when noted with straightforward pathway to get there—a conducting wire—we can harness their power to administer electrical power to our torch, phone, or whatever.


The difference in typical potential in between the electrodes type of equates to the force with which electrons will certainly travel in between the two electrodes. This is recognized as the cell’s all at once electrochemical potential, and it determines the cell voltage. The higher the difference, the better the electrochemical potential, and the greater the voltage.

To boost a battery’s voltage, we’ve acquired two options. Us could pick different materials for our electrodes, ones that will give the cell a better electrochemical potential. Or, we deserve to stack number of cells together. Once the cells are an unified in a particular means (in series), it has actually an additive result on the battery’s voltage. Essentially, the pressure at i m sorry the electrons move through the battery can be viewed as the full force as it move from the anode that the first cell all the way through yet many cell the battery consists of to the cathode of the last cell.

When cells are combined in another way (in parallel) it rises the battery’s possible current, which deserve to be assumed of together the total number of electrons flowing with the cells, but not that voltage.


But the electrodes room just component of the battery. Psychic Volta’s bits of file soaked in salty water? The salty water to be the electrolyte, another critical part of the picture. An electrolyte have the right to be a liquid, gel or a solid substance, but it should be able to allow the activity of charged ions.

Electrons have a negative charge, and also as we’re sending out the circulation of an adverse electrons roughly through ours circuit, we need a means to balance that fee movement. The electrolyte offers a medium through which charge-balancing confident ions deserve to flow.

As the chemistry reaction at the anode to produce electrons, to keep a neutral fee balance ~ above the electrode, a matching amount of positive charged ions are also produced. These nothing go down the exterior wire (that’s because that electrons only!) yet are released right into the electrolyte.

At the very same time, the cathode must likewise balance the an unfavorable charge the the electrons it receives, for this reason the reaction the occurs right here must pull in positive charged ion from the electrolyte (alternatively, that may additionally release an unfavorable charged ions from the electrode into the electrolyte).

So, when the exterior wire gives the pathway because that the circulation of negatively charged electrons, the electrolyte provides the pathway because that the transfer of positive charged ions to balance the an adverse flow. This flow of positively charged ions is just as important as the electrons that carry out the electric current in the exterior circuit we use to power our devices. The fee balancing role they perform is vital to save the entire reaction running.

Now, if all the ions released into the electrolyte were enabled to move completely freely with the electrolyte, they would end up coating the surface of the electrodes and clog the entirety system up. Therefore the cell normally has some type of obstacle to protect against this from happening.




When the battery is being used, we have actually a situation where over there is a constant flow of electrons (through the exterior circuit) and also positively charged ions (through the electrolyte). If this consistent flow is halted—if the circuit is open, like when your torch is turned off—the circulation of electron is halted. The charges will pile/build up and also the chemistry reactions control the battery will stop.

As the battery is used, and the reactions at both electrodes chug along, brand-new chemical assets are made. This reaction assets can create a sort of resistance that deserve to prevent the reaction from proceeding with the same efficiency. As soon as this resistance becomes as well great, the reaction slows down. The electron tug-of-war in between the cathode and anode also loses that strength and also the electrons stop flowing. The battery progressively goes flat.

Recharging a battery

Some usual batteries are solitary use only (known as main or disposable batteries). Thetrip the electrons take it from the anode end to the cathode is one-way. Either your electrodes come to be depleted as they release their optimistic or negative ions into the electrolyte, or the build-up of reaction assets on the electrodes avoids the reaction from continuing, and it’s done and also dusted. The battery ends up in the bin (or hopefully the recycling, however that’s a entirety other Nova topic).

But. The nifty thing around that flow of ions and electrons together it takes location in some types of batteries that have ideal electrode materials, is the it can additionally go backwards, taking our battery back to its beginning point and also giving it a whole brand-new lease ~ above life. Just as batteries revolutionized the way we’ve to be able to usage various electric devices, rechargeable batteries have further transformed those devices’ utility and also lifespans.

When we attach an nearly flat battery to an external power source, and sendenergy earlier in come the battery, that reverses the chemical reaction that emerged during discharge. This sends out the confident ions released from the anode right into the electrolyte back to the anode, and the electrons that the cathode absorbed alsoback to the anode. The return the both the optimistic ions and also electrons ago into the anode primes the system so it’s all set to run again: her battery is recharged.

The process isn’t perfect, however. The replacement of the negative and positive ions native the electrolyte back on come the relevant electrode as the battery is recharged isn’t together neat or together nicely structured as the electrode remained in the an initial place. Each fee cycle degrades the electrodes just a little bit more, an interpretation the battery loses performance over time, i beg your pardon is why even rechargeable batteries don’t keep on functioning forever.

Over the food of severalcharge and discharge cycles, the shape of the battery"scrystals becomes less ordered.This is exacerbated when a battery is discharged/recharged in ~ a high rate—for example, if you drive her electric auto in large bursts the speed rather than steadily. High-rate cycling leader to the crystal structure becoming more disordered, v a lessefficient battery together a result.

Memory effect and self discharge

The almost-but-not-quite totally reversible discharge and recharge reactions likewise contribute come something referred to as the ‘memory effect’. As soon as you recharge some species of rechargeable batteries without sufficiently discharging them first, castle ‘remember’ where they were as much as in previously discharge cycles and don’t recharge properly.

In part cells, the is brought about by the method the metal and the electrolyte react to type a salt (and the method that salt climate dissolves again and also metal is changed on the electrodes as soon as you recharge it). We desire our cells to have actually nice, uniform, small crystals that salt coating a perfect metal surface, however that’s not what we obtain in the real world! The means some crystals type is very complex, and also the way some metals deposit during recharge is additionally surprisingly complex, which is why part battery species have a bigger memory result than others. The imperfections largely depend ~ above the charge state the the battery to start with, the temperature, charge voltage and also charging current. End time, the imperfections in one charge cycle can cause the same in the next charge cycle, and also so on, and our battery choose up some negative memories. The memory impact is strong for some types of cells, such as nickel-based batteries. Other types, prefer lithium-ion, don’t experience from this problem.

Another aspect of rechargeable battery is the the chemistry that renders them rechargeable also means they have actually a greater tendency towards self-discharge. This is when internal reactions happen within the battery cell even when the electrodes space not linked via the outside circuit. This outcomes in the cell shedding some of its chemical power over time. A high self-discharge price seriously boundaries the life the the battery—and renders them die during storage.

The lithium-ion battery in our mobile phones have a pretty good self-discharge price of about 2–3 per cent per month, and also our lead-acid vehicle batteries are additionally pretty reasonable—they often tend to shed 4–6 every cent every month. Nickel-based battery lose around 10–15 per cent that their charge per month, which is not very an excellent if you arrangement to keep a torch because that a totality season as soon as you don’t need it! A non-rechargeable alkaline battery only loses about 2–3 every cent of its fee per year.

Voltage, current, power, capacity … what’s the difference?

All this words basically explain the stamin of a battery, right? Well, sort of. But they’re every subtly different.

Voltage = force at which the reaction steering the battery pushes electrons through the cell. This is additionally known as electric potential, and depends top top the difference in potential between the reactions that happen at each of the electrodes, the is, how strongly the cathode will certainly pull the electrons (through the circuit) from the anode. The greater the voltage, the an ext work the same number of electrons can do.

Current = the variety of electrons that happen to be passing through any kind of one point of a circuit at a offered time. The greater the current, the much more work it deserve to do in ~ the same voltage. Within the cell, friend can likewise think of existing as the variety of ions moving through the electrolyte, time the charge of those ions.

Power = voltage x current. The higher the power, the much faster the price at which a battery deserve to do work—this connection shows exactly how voltage and also current space both important for working out what a battery is suitable for.

Capacity = the strength of the battery as a function of time, i m sorry is provided to explain the size of time a battery will be able to power a machine for. A high-capacity battery will be able to keep going because that a longer duration before going flat/running the end of current. Some batteries have a sad little quirk—if you try and attract too lot from them also quickly, the chemistry reactions involved can’t store up and also the volume is less! So, we always have come be mindful when us talk about battery capacity and remember what the battery is going to be used for.

Another renowned term is ‘energy density’. This is the lot of energy a maker can host per unit volume, in various other words, how much bang you obtain for your buck in terms of power vs. Size. V a battery, generally the higher the energy thickness the better, as it method the battery have the right to be smaller sized and much more compact, which is always a plus once you require it to power something you want to keep in your pocket. It’s also a add to for electric cars—the battery has to fit in the car somehow!

For some applications, such as storing electricity at a renewable strength plant prefer a wind or solar farm, a high energy density isn’t so lot of a problem, together they will many likely have actually ample space to store the batteries. The main goal because that this use would it is in to just store together much power as possible, as safely and cheaply as possible.

Why so many types?

A selection of materials (it offered to be simply metals) deserve to be provided as the electrodes in a battery. End the years, many, many different combinations have actually been make the efforts out, but there are just a few that have actually really gone the distance. But why use different combinations of steels anyway? If you’ve acquired a pair of steels that job-related well with each other as electrodes, why bother messing about with others?

Different materials have different electrochemical properties, and so they create different results once you put them together in a battery cell. Because that example, some combinations will produce a high voltage, very quickly, but then drop turn off rapidly, unable to sustain that voltage for long. This is an excellent if you must produce, say, a sudden flash the light favor a camera flash.

Other combinations will only produce a trickle the current, yet they’ll save that trickle going because that ages. We don’t need a substantial amount of existing to power a exhilaration detector, for example, but we perform want ours smoke detectors to store going for a long time.

Another reason to use different combinations of metals is that regularly two or much more battery cells have to be stacked to achieve the forced voltage, and also it turns out that part electrodecombinations stack together much much more happily than various other combinations. Because that example, the lithium iron phosphate batteries (a kind of lithium-ion battery) offered in electric cars stack with each other to make high voltage equipment (100 or even much more volts), however you’d never do that with those NiCad Walkman battery that gain hot!

Our different needs over time have actually led come the development of a large array that battery types. To read more about them, and also what the future holds for battery power, inspect out our various other Nova topics.

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This object is part of our four-part collection on batteries. For further reading see types of batteries, lithium-ion batteries and batteries that the future.