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The nickel-cadmium battery (commonly abbreviated NiCd and pronounced "nye-cad") is a popular type of rechargeable battery for portable electronics and toys using the metals nickel (Ni) and cadmium (Cd) as the active chemicals. The abbreviation NiCad is a registered trademark of SAFT corporation and should not be used to refer generically to nickel-cadmium batteries. They are sometimes used as a replacement for primary cells, such as heavy duty or alkaline, being available in many of the same sizes. In addition, specialty NiCd batteries have a niche market in the area of cordless and wireless telephones, emergency lighting, as well as power tools.
Due to their beneficial weight/energy ratio as compared to lead based technologies and good service lifetimes, nickel-cadmium batteries of large capacities with a wet electrolyte (wet NiCds) are used for electric cars and as start batteries for airplanes.
Nickel-cadmium cells have a nominal cell potential of 1.2 V. This is lower than the 1.5 V of many popular primary cells, and consequently they are not appropriate as a replacement in all applications. However, unlike most primary cells, NiCds keep a near constant voltage throughout their service life. Because many electronic devices are designed to work throughout the lifetime of the battery, they must operate on voltages as low as 0.90 to 1.0 V per cell, and the 1.2 V of a NiCd is more than enough. Some would consider the near constant voltage a drawback, as it makes it difficult to detect when the battery charge is low; this is usually a minor concern. Despite their lower nominal voltage, NiCds are better suited for high current applications. Due to a significantly lower series resistance, they can supply high surge currents. This makes them a favourable choice for remote controlled electric model aeroplanes, boats and cars, as well as cordless power tools and camera flash units.
Besides 1.2 V single cells, 7.2, 9.6, and 12 V NiCd batteries made up of several cells connected in series are widely available. The 7.2 V batteries are the most common replacement for 9 V primary batteries, although 8.4 V batteries have been made by some manufacturers, e.g., VARTA, to better match the performance of carbon-zinc and alkaline "transistor radio" batteries.
Waldemar Jungner of Sweden created the first nickel-cadmium battery in 1899. At that time the only direct competitor was the lead-acid battery which was less physically and chemically robust. With minor improvements to the first prototypes, energy density rapidly increased to about half of that of primary batteries, and significantly better than lead-acid batteries.
In 1906, Jungner established a factory in Sweden to initially produce industrial nickel-iron and later nickel-cadmium batteries. The first production in the United States began in 1946. Up to this point, the batteries were "pocket type," constructed of nickel-plated steel pockets containing nickel and cadmium active materials. Around the middle of the twentieth century, sintered plate nickel-cadmium batteries became increasingly popular. Fusing nickel powder at a temperature well below its melting point, using high pressures creates sintered plates. The plates thus formed are highly porous, about 80 percent by volume. Positive and negative plates are produced by soaking the nickel plates in nickel and cadmium active materials, respectively. Sintered plates are usually much thinner than the pocket type, resulting in greater surface area per volume, and higher currents. In general, the more surface area of reactive materials in a battery, the lower its internal resistance. In the past few decades, this has resulted in nickel-cadmium batteries with internal resistance as low as alkaline batteries. Today, all consumer nickel-cadmium batteries use the "jelly-roll" design. This design incorporates several layers of anode and cathode material rolled into a cylindrical shape.
Advances in battery manufacturing technologies throughout the second half of the twentieth century have made batteries increasingly cheaper to produce. Battery-powered devices in general have increased in popularity. As of 2000, about 1.5 billion nickel-cadmium batteries were produced annually. While Ni-Cd never became widely used as a replacement for lead-acid batteries in the areas where those batteries dominate, up until the mid 1990s, Ni-Cds had an overwhelming majority of the market share for rechargeable batteries in consumer electronics. Recently, however, Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) and lithium ion batteries (Li-ion) have become more commercially available and cheaper, though still more expensive than Ni-Cds. Where energy density is important, those types of batteries compare favourably to Ni-Cds, especially when the cost of the battery is small compared to the cost of the device, such as in cell phones.
Comparison to Other Batteries
When compared to other forms of rechargeable battery, the nickel cadmium battery has a number of distinct advantages. The batteries are more difficult to damage than other batteries, tolerating deep discharge for long periods. In fact, NiCd batteries in long-term storage are typically stored fully discharged. This is in contrast, for example, to lithium ion batteries, which are highly volatile and will be permanently damaged if discharged below a minimum voltage. In addition, NiCd batteries typically last longer, in terms of number of charge/discharge cycles, than other rechargeable batteries, and have faster charge and discharge rates than lead-acid batteries, with minimal loss of capacity even at high discharge rates.
The primary trade-off with NiCd batteries is their higher cost. They require extra labor to manufacture, and thus, are typically more costly than lead-acid batteries. Another disadvantage of NiCds is that certain usage patterns may cause a "false bottom" effect. Specifically, if the battery is consistently discharged to the same level, then fully recharged, the battery will eventually stop discharging on its own upon reaching this threshold. (See memory effect below for more details on this effect)
The most common alternative to NiCd batteries are lead-acid batteries. Compared to these, NiCd batteries have a much higher energy density. This means that, for a given battery capacity, a NiCd battery is smaller and lighter than a comparable lead-acid battery. In cases where size and weight are important considerations (for example, some transportation applications), NiCd batteries are preferred over the cheaper lead-acid batteries.
In consumer applications, NiCd batteries compete directly with alkaline batteries. A NiCd cell has a lower capacity than that of an equivalent alkaline cell, and costs slightly more. However, since the alkaline battery's chemical reaction is typically not reversible, a reusable NiCd battery has a significantly longer total lifetime. There have been attempts to create rechargeable alkaline batteries, such as Rayovac's rechargeable alkaline, Renewal, or specialized alkaline battery chargers, but none that has seen wide usage. In addition, a NiCd battery maintains a constant voltage as it discharges. Since an alkaline battery's voltage drops as the charge drops, most consumer applications are well equipped to deal with the slightly lower NiCd voltage with no noticeable loss of performance.
Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are the newest, and most similar, competitor to NiCd batteries. Compared to NiCd, NiMH batteries have a higher capacity and are less toxic, but are still slightly more expensive. In addition, a NiCd battery has a lower self-discharge rate (for example, 20% per month for a NiCd, versus 30% per month for a NiMH under identical conditions). This results in a preference for NiCd over NiMH in applications where the current draw on the battery is lower than the battery's own self-discharge rate (for example, television remote controls) In both types of cell, the self-discharge rate is highest for a full charge state and drops off somewhat for lower charge states. In addition, like alkaline batteries, NiMH batteries experience a voltage drop as it nears full discharge, which a NiCd does not. Finally, a NiCd battery has a slightly lower internal resistance, and thus can achieve a higher maximum discharge rate (which can be important for applications such as power tools)
Consumer-grade NiCd cells are available in the same general purpose sizes as alkaline batteries, from AAA through D, as well as several multi-cell sizes, including the equivalent of a 9 volt battery. Each cell has a nominal potential of 1.2 volts, compared to the nominal 1.5 volt potential for alkaline batteries. More specifically, a fully charged single NiCd cell, under no load, carries a potential difference of between 1.25 and 1.35 volts, which stays relatively constant as the battery is discharged. Since an alkaline battery near fully discharged may see its voltage drop to as low as 0.9 volts, NiCd cells and alkaline cells are typically interchangeable for most applications.
In addition to single cells, batteries exist that contain up to 300 cells (nominally 360 volts, actual voltage under no load between 380 and 420 volts). This many cells are mostly used in automotive and heavy duty industrial applications. For portable applications, the number of cells is normally below 18 cells (24 V). Industrial-sized flooded batteries are available with capacities ranging from 12.5Ah up to several hundred Ah.
The maximum discharge rate for a NiCd battery varies by size. For a common AA-size cell, the maximum discharge rate is approximately 18 amps; for a D size battery the discharge rate can be as high as 35 amps.
NiCd batteries can charge at several different rates, depending on how the cell was manufactured. The charge rate is measured based on the percentage of the amp-hour capacity the battery is fed as a steady current over the duration of the charge. Regardless of the charge speed, more energy must be supplied to the battery than its actual capacity, to account for energy loss during charging, with faster charges being more efficient. For example, the typical "overnight" charge, called a C/10 charge, is accomplished by applying 10% of the batteries total capacity for a period of 16 hours; that is, a 100Ah battery takes 160Ah of energy to charge at this rate. At the "fast charge" rate, done at 100% of the rated capacity, the battery holds roughly 80% of the charge, so a 100Ah battery takes 120Ah of energy to charge (that is, approximately 1 hour and fifteen minutes) The downside to faster charging is the higher risk of overcharging, which can damage the battery.
The safe temperature range for a NiCd battery in use is between −20°C and 45°C. During charging, the battery temperature typically stays low, around 0°C (the charging reaction absorbs heat), but as the battery nears full charge the temperature will rise to 45–50°C. Some battery chargers detect this temperature increase to cut off charging and prevent over-charging.
When not under load or charge, a NiCd batter will self-discharge approximately 10% per month at 20°C, ranging up to 20% per month at higher temperatures. It is possible to perform a "trickle charge" at current levels just high enough to offset this discharge rate; to keep a battery fully charged. However, if the battery is going to be stored unused for a long period of time, it should be discharged down to at most 40% of capacity (some manufacturers recommend fully discharging, or even short-circuiting), and stored in a cool, dry environment.
The battery should have no external damage and depending on the number of cells it should have 1.2V per cell when fully charged and about 0.8–1V when discharged.
The larger NiCd’s contain a liquid much like flooded batteries while smaller ones e.g. those used in flashlights are relatively "dry."
High quality NiCd’s have a thermal cut-off so if the battery gets too hot the charger stops. If a NiCd is still warm from discharging and been put on charge, it will not get the full charge possible. In that case, let the battery cool to room temperature then charge. Watch for the correct polarity. Leave charger in a cool place or room temperature when charging to get best results.
A NiCd battery requires a charger with a slightly different voltage charge level than a lead-acid battery, especially if the NiCd has 11 or 12 cells. In addition, the charger requires a more intelligent charge termination method if a fast charger is used. Often NiCd batteries have a thermal cut-off inside that feeds back to the charger telling it to stop the charging once the battery has heated up and/or a voltage peaking sensing circuit. At room temperature during normal charge conditions the cell voltage increases from an initial 1.2 V to an end-point of about 1.45 V. The rate of rise increases markedly as the cell approaches full charge. The end-point voltage decreases slightly with increasing temperature.
NiCd batteries contain a nickel hydroxide positive electrode plate, a cadmium hydroxide negative electrode plate, a separator, and an alkaline electrolyte. NiCd batteries usually have a metal case with a sealing plate equipped with a self-sealing safety valve. The positive and negative electrode plates, isolated from each other by the separator, are rolled in a spiral shape inside the case.
The chemical reaction which occurs in a NiCd battery is:
2 NiO(OH) + Cd + 2 H2O ↔ 2 Ni(OH)2 + Cd(OH)2
This reaction goes from left to right during discharge, and from right to left during charge. The alkaline electrolyte (commonly KOH) is not consumed in this reaction and therefore its Specific Gravity, unlike Lead- Acid batteries, is not a guide to its state of charge.
When Jungner built the first nickel-cadmium batteries, he used nickel oxide in the cathode and iron and cadmium materials in the anode. It was not until later that pure cadmium metal and nickel hydroxide were used. Until about 1960, the reaction in nickel-cadmium batteries was not completely understood. There were several speculations as to the reaction products. The debate was finally resolved by spectrometry, which revealed cadmium hydroxide and nickel hydroxide.
Another historically important variation on the basic nickel-cadmium cell is the addition of lithium hydroxide to the potassium hydroxide electrolyte. This was believed to prolong the service life by making the cell more resistant to electrical abuse. The nickel-cadmium battery in its modern form is extremely resistant to electrical abuse anyway, so this practice has been discontinued.
Overcharging must be considered in the design of most rechargeable batteries. In the case of NiCds, there are two possible results of overcharging. If the anode is overcharged, hydrogen gas is produced; if the cathode is overcharged, oxygen gas is produced. For this reason, the anode is always designed for a higher capacity than the cathode, to avoid releasing hydrogen gas. There is still the problem of eliminating oxygen gas, to avoid rupture of the cell casing. NiCd cells are vented, with seals that fail at high internal gas pressures. The sealing mechanism must allow gas to escape from inside the cell, and seal again properly when the gas is expelled. This complex mechanism, unnecessary in alkaline batteries, contributes to their higher cost.
Another potential problem is reverse charging. This can occur due to an error by the user, or more commonly, when a battery of several cells is fully discharged. Because there is a slight variation in the capacity of cells in a battery, one of the cells will usually be fully discharged before the others, at which point reverse charging begins seriously damaging the other cells, reducing battery life. The by-product of reverse charging is hydrogen gas, which can in some circumstances be dangerous. Some commentators advise that one should never discharge multi-cell nickel-cadmium batteries to zero voltage; for example, torches should be turned off when they yellow, before they go out completely.
Individual cells may be fully discharged to zero volts and some of the battery manufacturers recommend this if the cells are to be stored for lengthy intervals. At least one manufacturer even recommends short-circuiting each cell for storage. However, it is normally recommended that NiCd Batteries be charged to around 40% capacity for long-term storage.
NiCd batteries contain cadmium, which is a toxic heavy metal and therefore requires special care during battery disposal. In the United States, part of the price of a NiCd battery is a fee for its proper disposal at the end of its service lifetime. In the European Union, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) bans the use of cadmium in electrical and electronic equipment products after July 2006, though NiCd batteries are not restricted.
Problems with NiCd
- Main article: Memory effect
It is sometimes claimed that NiCd batteries suffer from a so-called "memory effect" if they are recharged before they have been fully discharged. The apparent symptom is that the battery "remembers" the point in its charge cycle where recharging began and during subsequent use suffers a sudden drop in voltage at that point, as if the battery had been discharged. The capacity of the battery is not actually reduced substantially. Some electronics designed to be powered by NiCds are able to withstand this reduced voltage long enough for the voltage to return to normal. However, if the device is unable to operate through this period of decreased voltage, the device will be unable to get as much energy out of the battery, and for all practical purposes, the battery has a reduced capacity.
There is controversy about whether the memory effect actually exists, or whether it is as serious a problem as is sometimes believed. Some critics claim it is used to promote competing NiMH batteries, which apparently suffer this effect to a lesser extent. Many nickel-cadmium battery manufacturers deny the effect either exists or are silent on the matter.
The memory effect story originated from orbiting satellites, where they were typically charging for twelve hours out of twenty-four for several years. After this time, it was found that the capacities of the batteries had declined significantly, but were still perfectly fit for use. It is thought unlikely that this precise repetitive charging (e.g. 1000 charges / discharges with less than 2% variability) would ever be reproduced by consumers using electrical goods.
An effect with similar symptoms to the memory effect is the so-called "lazy battery effect." (Some people use this term as a synonym for "memory effect") This results from repeated overcharging; the symptom is that the battery appears to be fully charged but discharges quickly after only a brief period of operation. Sometimes, much of the lost capacity can be recovered by a few deep discharge cycles, a function often provided by automatic NiCd battery chargers. However, this process may reduce the shelf life of the battery. If treated well, a NiCd battery can last for 1000 cycles or more before its capacity drops below half its original capacity.
NiCd batteries, when not used regularly, tend to develop dendrites which are thin, conductive crystals. This leads to internal short circuits and premature failure, long before the 800–1000 charge/discharge cycle life claimed by most vendors. Sometimes, applying a brief, high-current charging pulse to individual cells can clear these dendrites, but they will typically reform within a few days or even hours. Cells in this state have reached the end of their useful life and should be replaced. Many battery guides, circulating on the Internet and online auctions, promise to restore dead cells using the above principle. They achieve very short-term results at best, and should be considered as Internet scams.
Cadmium, being a heavy metal, can cause substantial pollution when landfilled or incinerated. Because of this, many countries now operate recycling programs to capture and reprocess old NiCd batteries.
- Rayovac Safety Data Sheet
- Never short-circuit the battery because this may cause the battery to explode. (A short-circuit is a direct electrical connection between the + and – battery terminals, such as with a wire. You should not short-circuit any type of battery.)
- Never incinerate NiCd batteries; besides the possibility of explosion, this will release toxic cadmium into the environment. Recycle the battery instead.
- Avoid dropping, hitting, or denting the battery because this may cause internal damage including short-circuiting of the cell.
- Avoid rapid overcharging of the battery; this may cause leakage of the electrolyte, outgassing, or possibly an explosion.
- ^  Saft celebrates the 100th anniversary of its Oskarshamn battery plant
- ^ NiCad Battery Charging Basics
- ^ Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect
- ^ Rayovac Safety Data Sheet
- Bergstrom, Sven. "Nickel-Cadmium Batteries — Pocket Type". Journal of the Electrochemical Society, September 1952. 1952 The Electrochemical Society.
- Ellis, G. B., Mandel, H., and Linden, D. "Sintered Plate Nickel-Cadmium Batteries". Journal of the Electrochemical Society, September 1952. 1952 The Electrochemical Society.
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