Everyday Chemistry: About Batteries Part 2

Common Batteries Explained

  • Alkaline: The standard drugstore battery. Lots of power for the price. Disposable. Has a shelf life of about 4 years. Work great in high-drain devices, although you’ll buy a lot of them. Ideal for things that are used infrequently or use very little power, such as clocks, thermometers, flashlights, and remote controls. Comes in the common sizes and button cells.

  • Silver Oxide: Higher capacity than Alkaline, long shelf life, only available in button cells. Best for watches.

  • Lithium: A high power disposable battery. Comes in standard AA, AAA sizes as well as an array of Lithium-only sizes. Has 3 times the power of Alkaline. Works much better than Alkaline in cold temperatures. Expensive. Has a 10 year shelf life, making it ideal for emergency kits.

  • Zinc-Air: A button cell battery that has a 1 year shelf life until activated by pulling off a small tab. Lasts about 30 days after activation, whether you use it or not. Light weight. Designed for use in hearing aids, and not useful for much else.

  • Carbon-Zinc: The original disposable battery. Low capacity and short shelf life have made this type almost a relic.

  • Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad): Rechargeable battery available in standard and many other sizes. Inexpensive. Medium shelf life. About ¼ the power per charge of the same size Alkaline. Loses charge in a couple of months. Can be susceptible to memory effect. Has been largely supplanted by Nickel-Metal Hydride.

  • Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMh): The best standard size rechargeable battery. Much more power than the older Ni-Cad batteries. Inexpensive. Long shelf life. Less memory effect. About half the power per charge of a comparable Alkaline. Loses charge in a couple of months. Ideal for high-drain things used on a regular basis. Light weight.

  • Lead-Acid: One of the earliest types of rechargeable batteries. Used in automobiles, but also available in a “Gel Cell” smaller variety that won’t spill. These are used for many electronic applications such as burglar alarm backup and Uninterruptible Power Supplies. Long shelf life, high capacity, no memory effect, low cost compared to other equivalent rechargeables. Holds a charge for months. Cannot be run all the way down without suffering damage. Heavy.

  • Lithium-Ion, Lithium Polymer: The highest capacity rechargeable battery. Comes in proprietary sizes, and some unique non-proprietary sizes used in high-power flashlights and the like. Expensive. No memory effect. 2 to 3 year shelf life. Used in most current camcorders, cellphones, and laptops. Can overheat and cause a fire if damaged or defective. Holds a charge for months. Light weight for the capacity.


This post has been adapted from my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now! Click here to read all about it.

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