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Exploring rechargeable batteries

Picture of rechargeable batteries

Rechargeable batteries: they're used everywhere, and there's many different brands and types. Almost every amateur has their own opinions on the merits of different types and the best ways to look after them. This month we examine the main types available and their suitability for various equipment amateurs use.

How rechargeable batteries work

Batteries convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy. This is achieved by causing electrons to flow whenever there is a conductive path between the cell's electrodes.

Electrons flow as a result of a chemical reaction between the cell's two electrodes that are separated by an electrolyte. The cell becomes exhausted when the active materials inside the cell are depleted and the chemical reactions slow. The voltage provided by a cell depends on the electrode material, their surface area and material between the electrodes (electrolyte). Current flow stops when the connection between the electrodes is removed.

Rechargeable cells operate on the same principle, except that the chemical reaction that occurs is reversed while charging. When connected to an appropriate charger, cells convert electrical energy back into potential chemical energy. The process is repeated every time the cell is discharged and recharged.

Different cells use different electrode materials and have different voltage outputs (1.2, 1.5, 2 and 3.6 volts for the types discussed here). Higher voltages are possible by connecting cells in series. A set of several cells connected together is called a battery. However, because lay people do not distinguish between a 1.5 volt cell and a 9 volt battery (which comprises several cells), the term battery is widely used for both batteries and cells.

The capacity of cells is expressed in amp-hours (Ah) or milliamp-hours (mAh). The approximate time that a battery will last per charge can be found by dividing the battery pack capacity (normally written on the battery pack itself) by the average current consumption of the device. Thus a 600 mAh battery pack can be expected to power a receiver that takes 60mA for 10 hours.

Cells can be visualised as consisting of a cell with a resistor in series. You won't find an actual resistor should you split open a battery pack, but the effect is the same. Some battery types have higher values of internal resistance than others. High internal resistance doesn't matter if powering items that draw fairly low currents (eg a clock or small receiver). However, if running something like a 5-watt handheld transceiver, a battery with a high internal resistance will not deliver the current asked of it.

Having explained some of the characteristics important to all batteries, we will now look at each cell type in turn.

Nickel-cadmium (NiCad)

Nickel-cadmium cells are the most commonly used rechargeable batteries in consumer applications. They come in similar sizes to non-rechargeable cells, so they can directly replace non-rechargeable alkaline or carbon-zinc cells. NiCads have a lower voltage output than non-rechargeable cells (1.2 vs 1.5 volts). This difference is not important in most cases.

NiCad battery packs have voltages of 2.4, 3.6, 4.8, 6, 7.2, 9, 10.8 volts, etc. This corresponds to 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 cells respectively.

NiCads perform best between 16 and 26 degrees Celsius. Their capacity is reduced at higher temperatures. Hydrogen gas is created and there is a risk of explosion when cells are used below 0 degrees.

NiCad batteries have a low internal resistance. This makes them good for equipment that draws large amounts of current (eg portable transmitting gear). However low internal resistance means that extremely high currents (as much as 30 amps for a C-sized cell!) will flow if cells are short-circuited. Short-circuiting should be avoided as it can cause heat build-up and cell damage.

Most portable transceivers come with NiCad battery packs where the cells are welded to metal connecting straps. There is good reason for this. In high-current applications, the unknown (and varying) resistance between cells and battery holder contacts can result in erratic operation. This is especially so when the transceiver is used in a salt-laden environment. An encased battery pack overcomes these difficulties and provides more reliable operation.

The normal charging rate is 10 per cent of a battery's capacity for 14 hours. For example, if a battery pack has a 600 mAh rating, its correct charging current is 60 mA. Because the charging process is not 100% efficient, the charger needs to be left running for about 14 hours instead of 10 hours. Higher charging currents are possible, but the charging time needs to be proportionally reduced. NiCads can be left on a trickle charger indefinitely if the charging current is reduced to 2% of the battery's amp-hour rating. Avoid the build up of heat during charging for long battery life.

NiCad batteries require a constant current charger; ie one where the current provided to the battery is fixed over the entire charging period. Such a charger can be something as simple as an unregulated DC power supply with a series resistor to limit the charging current into the cells. If the charger's voltage and the battery's desired charging current is known, Ohm's Law can be used to calculate the correct series resistor value. Because NiCads have a low internal resistance, proper charging can occur with several cells in series.

For best life, do not discharge NiCads to less than 1.0 volt per cell. When charging, NiCads should read 1.45 volts per cell. If the cell voltage is higher during charging (eg 1.6 or 1.7 volts), the cell is faulty and should be discarded.

You'll often hear discussions about the so-called 'memory effect' exhibited by NiCad cells. This refers to the claimed tendency of cells not to deliver their rated voltage when placed in a charger before being fully discharged. Belief in the existence of the 'memory effect' is widespread amongst users of NiCad batteries. However, textbooks and data from battery manufacturers make little or no mention of it. Believers say that to prevent it batteries must be discharged to 1 volt per cell before charging. Non-believers say that this discharging merely reduces cell life.

Evidence suggests that true 'memory effect' is rare. It was first noticed in communications satellites where cells were discharged to precisely the same discharge point every time. In casual amateur use batteries are most unlikely to be discharged to the same point after every use. Much of what is mistaken for the 'memory effect' is voltage depression, which is caused by long, continuous overcharging, which causes crystals to grow inside the cell. Fortunately both the 'memory effect' and voltage depression can be overcome by subjecting the battery to one or more deep charge/discharge cycles.

Another term you will hear is 'cell reversal'. This can occur when a battery of cells is discharged below its safe 1.0 volt per cell. During this discharge, differences between individual cells can lead to one cell becoming depleted before the rest. When this happens, the current generated from the remaining active cells will 'charge' the weakest cell, but in reverse polarity. This can lead to the release of gas and permanent damage to the battery pack.

NiCads can short circuit due to the build up of crystals inside the battery. The use of a fully-charged electrolytic capacitor placed across the cell can effect a temporary cure. Over-discharging of batteries invites short circuiting. Batteries should be stored charged. A lifespan of 200 to 800 charges is typical for NiCad batteries.

Nickel metal hydride (NiMH)

Like NiCads, nickel-metal hydride cells provide 1.2 volts per cell. Battery makers claim that NiMH cells do not suffer from the 'memory effect' and can be recharged up to 1000 times.

NiMH cells are not quite as suitable as NiCads for extreme current loads, but do offer a greater capacity in the same cell size. A typical AA NiCad may have a 750 mAh, but a NiMH may provide 2400 mAh - three times the capacity. If your style of portable operating involves going out for 3 or 4 hours and running around 5 watts output, NiMH cells are an excellent choice and are lighter than sealed lead acid.

Picture of rechargeable NiMH battery pack

Where to get them? 7.2 volt battery packs are often used for models. Two in series gives 14.4 volts, but you'll get over 16 volts immediately after charging. That's above what many commercial rigs are rated so use at your own risk. Still it's much easier to get higher RF power outputs from transistors with 15 - 20 volts than 12 volts, so provided you're happy to use a somewhat non-standard voltage then it may still be sensible to use them for homebrew rigs (provided heatsinking is adequate and transistor ratings are observed). Another source are high-quality battery packs discarded by critical commercial users (such as hospitals). They may still be 80% good and entirely adequate for amateur use. One of my favourite QRP battery packs is a used ex-medical 24 volt NIMH pack bought at a hamfest for a few dollars. I split it in two and made two 12 volt packs. It's small and keeps a five-watt radio going for hours, even with heavy operating.

NiCad chargers can be used to charge NiMH batteries, but the charging time needs to be lengthened to take NiMH's typically larger capacity into account. The main enemy of rechargeable cells is heat. If cells get hot during charging, reduce the charging current to no more than that recommended.

Rechargeable alkaline manganese

Unlike the preceding two battery types, rechargeable alkaline manganese (RAM) cells give a full 1.5 volts each. They are therefore suitable for applications where the substitution of 1.2 volt NiCads for 1.5 volt dry cells results in degraded equipment performance.

RAM cells are cheaper to buy than NiCads. They can be recharged between 50 and 750 times. They also have a greater capacity than do NiCads - 1500 mAh is typical for size AA cells. RAM cells are good for use with outdoor and solar equipment as they will work efficiently at temperatures up to and exceeding 60 degrees Celsius.

RAM cells have a much higher internal resistance than NiCads (0.2 ohms vs 0.02 ohms). This means that they cannot supply high peak values of current. For this reason they are unsuitable for use with standard amateur HTs. However, their high capacity and long shelf life (5 years) makes them suitable for low powered or emergency-use applications, such as clocks and emergency torches.

Chargers intended for NiCad and NiMH cells will not charge rechargeable alkalines. This is because rechargeable alkaline cells require a constant voltage source of between 1.62 and 1.68 volts to charge. RAM cells should be connected in parallel rather than in series when charging several cells at a time. Unlike other rechargeable batteries, RAM cells are pre-charged and do not require charging before first use. I have not had much success with rechargeable alkalines and do not recommend them for amateur use.

Lithium ion

Lithium ion cells came onto the market in the 1990s. They offer higher cell voltage (3.6 volts) and greater capacity for a given volume. This makes them especially suitable for handheld equipment where long operating times are important, such as mobile phones.

As an example of what Lithium ion battery packs can do, a typical lithium ion battery pack is 55x45x20mm but provides 7.2 volts with a 1100 mAh capacity. Lithium ion batteries are more expensive than older battery types and came into amateur use through their inclusion in handheld transceivers such as Yaesu's VX-1R and VX-5R models.

Lithium polymer (LiPo)

Lithium polymer cells are the most recent of the battery types discussed here to come onto the market. They're particularly favoured by model aircraft enthusiasts for whom light weight combined with high current capacity is essential. Most amateurs don't need such exacting requirements. Overheating and even fire are risks with poor handling due to their low internal resistance and potential to deliver extremely high currents.

Sealed lead acid

Sealed lead acid batteries (or 'gel cells') are less popular than NiCads in handheld equipment, but find widespread use as back up batteries in security systems and for amateur portable operation. Per-cell voltage is 2.3 volts when charged, and 1.8 volts when discharged. This equates to 13.8 and 10.8 volts respectively for a battery of six cells. For best use of the full battery charge, equipment intended to operate with '12 volt' sealed lead acid batteries should operate well (if not at full power) at voltages of 10.8 volts or less.

Gel cells are cheap, rugged and reliable and should last several years at least. If you want a battery to run a QRP HF station or a VHF/UHF handheld for several hours, they are the ideal choice. They are also widely used with small solar systems.

Sealed lead acid batteries can either be used on a cyclic charge regime (battery connected to charger for a specific time) or continuous float use, where the battery is across the charger any time it's not in use. Cyclic chargers should charge at 2.4 or 2.5 volts per cell and be current limited to prevent overcharge. In contrast continuous float charging (or trickle charging) requires a charging voltage of only 2.3 volts per cell (13.8 volts for a '12 volt' battery). With both types of use the charger voltage is held constant. Connect batteries in parallel if charging two or more from the one charger.

Chargers for sealed lead acid batteries are available commercially or can be made at home. Special gel cell charger ICs exist to provide the necessary voltage and current regulation. Alternatively chargers can be made from the more common regulator chips such as the 723 or LM317. These chargers can be used to directly trickle charge the smaller '12 volt' gel batteries. No damage is done if the charger remains on, even when the battery is fully charged. This is because as the battery voltage approaches 13.8, the charging current will fall to negligible levels.

Sealed lead acid batteries should not be charged at voltages higher than those indicated as safe above. This is because high charging voltages (eg 2.6 volts per cell) will endanger the battery due to the production of excess gas. At a 13.8 volt charging voltage the production of gas is low, and the battery should give years of service. Charging current should not exceed 20 per cent of the rated amp hour capacity of cells. If using a high current 13.8 volt power supply as a charger, some form of current limiting is desirable to stay within the battery's limits.

Sources of batteries

The explosion of portable lightweight battery powered devices has been great news for the amateur seeking batteries for their station with a big range now available. Note though that battery quality varies. People have taken apart battery cases only to find a very small low capacity battery delivering much less than the claimed amp hour rating is inside. Be on the lookout for that especially if a battery pack's low price seems too good to be true.

The items below could be a starting point when looking for the ideal battery or power accessory for your equipment.


Disclosure: I receive a small commission from items purchased through links on this site.
Items were chosen for likely usefulness and a satisfaction rating of 4/5 or better.



This article has examined the characteristics of all major types of rechargeable batteries used by amateurs. We learned that NiCads and Lithium Polymer were best for high current applications. Sealed Lead acid and nickel metal hydride were good for casual amateur portable use. Rechargeable alkaline wasn't recommended for transceivers though may be OK for receivers. The charging of batteries varies too - Rechargeable alkaline and sealed lead acid required a constant voltage, but nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride cells needed a constant current to charge properly. In all cases over-charging, through excessive voltages, currents or charging periods can cause heating, gas build-up and possible cell damage. However, if you treat your batteries well, you should have many years of successful operation from them, whichever type you choose.


I wish to acknowledge the people and organisations who have contributed to the writing of this article. These include:

* The late Bill Trenwith VK3ATW for suggestions on the manuscript and imparting of knowledge gained through many years as a mechanics teacher, model engineer and radio amateur.

* Peter Wegner from Coorey & Co, distributors of BIG rechargeable alkaline cells.

* Danielle Cvetkovic from Invensys Energy Systems Pty Ltd for material on Hawker sealed lead acid batteries. * Adeal Pty Ltd for information on Varta's range of NiCad and NiMH cells.


1. Hawker P G3VA, Technical Topics Scrapbook 1990-1994, RSGB, pages 1, 16, 142

2. ARRL Handbook 1988, ARRL, pages 6-25, 27-32

3. Gruber N WA1SVF, QST November 1994, ARRL, page 70.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Amateur Radio December 1999 with updates made in 2017.


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