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Electronics >> Basics of Electronics >> Batteries

What is a Battery?

Charges can be separated by several means to produce a voltage. A battery uses a chemical reaction to produce energy and separate opposite sign charges onto its two terminals. As the charge is drawn off by an external circuit, doing work and finally returning to the opposite terminal, more chemicals in the battery react to restore the charge difference and the voltage. The particular type of chemical reaction used determines the voltage of the battery, but for most commercial batteries the voltage is about 1.5 V per chemical section or cell.

Batteries with higher voltages really contain multiple cells inside connected together in series. Now you know why there are 3 V, 6 V, 9 V, and 12 V batteries, but no 4 or 7 V batteries. The current a battery can supply depends on the speed of the chemical reaction supplying charge, which in turn often depends on the physical size of the cell and the surface area of the electrodes.

The size of a battery also limits the amount of chemical reactants stored. During use, the chemical reactants are depleted and eventually the voltage drops and the current stops.

Even with no current flow, the chemical reaction proceeds at a very slow rate (and there is some internal current flow), so a battery has a finite storage or shelf life, about a year or two in most cases.

In some types of batteries, like the ones we use for the robot, the chemical reaction is reversible: applying an external voltage and forcing a current through the battery, which requires work, reverses the chemical reaction and restores most, but not all, the chemical reactants. This cycle can be repeated many times. Batteries are specified in terms of their terminal voltage, the maximum current they can deliver, and the total current capacity in ampere-hours.

You should handle batteries carefully, especially the ones we use in this course. Chemicals are a very efficient and compact way of storing energy.

Just consider the power of gasoline or explosives, or the fact that you can play soccer for several hours powered only by a slice of cold pizza for breakfast. Never connect the terminals of a battery together with a wire or other good conductor.

The battery we use for the RoboBoard is similar to the battery in cars, which uses lead and sulphuric acid as reactants. Such batteries can deliver very large currents through a short circuit, hundreds of  amperes.

The large current will heat the wire and possibly burn you; the resulting rapid internal chemical reactions also produce heat and the battery can explode, spreading nasty, reactive chemicals about. Charging these batteries with too large a current can have the same effect. Double check the circuit and instructions before connecting a battery to any circuit.

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