A Look at Cell Formats and how to Build a good Battery

Early batteries of the 1700s and 1800s were mostly encased in glass jars. As the batteries grew in size, jars shifted to sealed wooden containers and composite materials. There were few size standards, except perhaps the No. 6 Dry Cell named after its six inches of height. Other sizes were hand-built for specific uses. With the move to portability, sealed cylindrical cells emerged that led to standards. In around 1917, the National Institute of Standards and Technology formalized the alphabet nomenclature that is still used today. Table 1 summarizes these historic and current battery sizes.

 

Size

Dimensions

History

F cell

33 x 91 mm

Introduced in 1896 for lanterns; later used for radios; only available in nickel-cadmium today

E cell

N/A

Introduced ca. 1905 to power box lanterns and hobby applications. Discontinued ca. 1980

D cell

34.2 x 61.5mm

Introduced in 1898 for flashlights and radios; still current


C cell
 
25.5 x 50mm Introduced ca. 1900 to attain smaller form factor

Sub-C

22.2 x 42.9mm
16.1mL

Cordless tool battery. Other sizes are ½, 4/5 and 5/4 sub-C lengths. Mostly NiCd.

B cell

20.1 x 56.8mm

Introduced in 1900 for portable lighting, including bicycle lights in Europe; discontinued in in North America in 2001 

A cell

17 x 50mm

Only available as a NiCd or NiMH cell; also available in 2/3 and 4/5 size. Popular in old laptops and hobby batteries.

AA cell

14.5 x 50mm

Introduced in 1907 as penlight battery for pocket lights and spy tool in WWI; added to ANSI standard in 1947.

AAA cell

10.5 x 44.5mm

Developed in 1954 to reduce size for Kodak and Polaroid cameras. Added to ANSI standard in 1959

AAAA cell

8.3 x 42.5mm

Offshoot of 9V, since 1990s; used for laser pointers, LED penlights, computer styli, headphone amplifiers.

4.5V battery

67 x 62
x 22mm

Three cells form a flat pack; short terminal strip is positive, long strip is negative; common in Europe, Russia

9V battery

48.5 x 26.5
x 17.5mm

Introduced in 1956 for transistor radios; contains six prismatic or AAAA cells. Added to ANSI standard in 1959

18650

18 x 65mm
16.5mL

Developed in the mid-1990s for lithium-ion-ion; commonly used in laptops, e-bikes, including Tesla EV cars

26650

26 x 65mm
34.5mL

Larger Li-ion. Some measure 26x70mm sold as 26700. Common chemistry is LiFeO4 for UPS, hobby, automotive.

14500

14x 50mm

Li-ion, similar size to AA. (Observe voltage incompatibility: NiCd/NiMH = 1.2V, alkaline = 1.5V, Li-ion = 3.6V)

Table 1: Common old and new battery norms

Standardization included primary cells, mostly in carbon-zinc; alkaline emerged only in the early 1960s. With the popularity of the sealed nickel-cadmium in the 1950s and 1960s, new sizes appeared, many of which were derived from the “A” and “C” sizes. Manufacturers of Li-ion departed from conventional sizes and invented their own.

The International Electrochemical Commission (IEC), a non-governmental standards organization founded in 1906, developed standards for most rechargeable batteries under the number of 600086. The relevant US standards are the ANSI C18 series developed by the US National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA).

A successful standard for a cylindrical cell is the 18650. Developed in the mid-1990s for lithium-ion, these cells power laptops, electric bicycles and even electric vehicles, as with the Tesla cars. The first two digits designate the diameter in millimeters; the next three digits are the length in tenths of millimeters. The 18650 is 18mm in diameter and 65.0mm in length.

Prismatic cells use the first two digits to indicate the thickness in tenth of millimeters. The next two digits designate the widths and the last two provide the length of the cell in millimeters. The 564656P prismatic cell, for example, is 5.6mm thick, 46mm wide and 56mm long. P stands for prismatic. Because of the large variety of chemistries and their diversity within, battery cells do not mark the chemistry.

Looking at the batteries in mobile phones and laptops one sees a departure of established standards. This is in part due to the manufacturer’s inability to agree on a standard. Most consumer devices come with a custom-made battery. Compact design and tailoring to market demands are swaying manufacturers away from standards. High volume tolerates unique sizes that are often short-lived. 

In the early days, a battery was perceived as “big” and this reflects in the sizing convention. While the “F” nomenclature may have been chosen as a middle-of-the-road battery in the late 1800s, our forefathers did not forestall that a tiny battery could do computing, serve as telephone and shoot pictures in a smartphone. Running out of letters towards the smaller sizes led to the awkward of AA, AAA and AAAA designation.

Since the introduction of the 9V battery in 1956, no new format emerged. Meanwhile portable devices lowered the operating voltages and 9V is overkill. The battery has six cells in series and is expensive to manufacture. A 3.6V alternative would serve well. This pack should have a coding system to prevent charging primaries and selecting the correct charge algorithm for secondary chemistries.

Starter batteries for vehicles also follow battery norms, which consist of the North American BCI, the European DIN and the Japanese JIS standards. These batteries are similar in footprint to allow swapping. To standardize, American car manufacturers are converting to the American DIN size batteries. Deep-cycle and stationary batteries have no standardized norms and the replacement packs must be sourced from the original maker. The attempt to standardize electric vehicle batteries may not work either and follow the failed attempt of common laptop batteries in the 1990s.


Cylindrical Cell

The cylindrical cell continues to be one of the most widely used packaging styles for primary and secondary batteries. The advantages are ease of manufacture and good mechanical stability. The tubular cylinder can withstand high internal pressures without deforming.

Most lithium and nickel-based cylindrical cells include a positive thermal coefficient (PTC) switch. When exposed to excessive current, the normally conductive polymer heats up and becomes resistive, acting as short circuit protection. Once the short is removed, the PTC cools down and returns to conductive state.

Most cylindrical cells also feature a pressure relief mechanism. The most simplistic design utilizes a membrane seal that ruptures under high pressure. Leakage and dry-out may occur after the membrane breaks. Re-sealable vents with a spring-loaded valve are the preferred design. Some Li-ion cells connect the pressure relief valve to an electrical fuse that opens the cell if an unsafe pressure builds up. Figure 2 shows a cross section of a cylindrical cell.

Typical applications for the cylindrical cell are power tools, medical instruments and laptops. To allow variations within a given size, manufacturers use fractural cell length, such as half and three-quarter formats.
 

Cross section of a lithium-ion cylindrical cell

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: Cross section of a
lithium-ion cylindrical cell

The cylindrical cell design has good cycling ability, offers a long calendar life, is economical but is heavy and has low packaging density due to space cavities.

Courtesy of Sanyo


Nickel-cadmium provided the largest variety of cell choices and some spilled over to nickel-metal-hydride, but not to lithium-ion as this chemistry established its own formats. The 18650s illustrated in Figure 3 remains one of the most popular cell packages.

 

Popular 18650 lithium-ion cell

 

Figure 3: Popular 18650 lithium-ion cell

The metallic cylinder measure 18mm in diameter and 65mm the length. The larger 26650 cell measures 26mm in diameter. 

Courtesy of Cadex

In 2013, 2.55 billion 18650 cells were produced; earlier with 2.2Ah and now mostly with a capacity of 2.8Ah. Some newer 18650 Energy Cells are 3.1Ah and the capacity will grow to 3.4Ah by 2017. Cell manufacturers prepare for the 3.9Ah 18650, a format that they hope will be made available at the same cost as lower capacity versions.

The 18650 is the most optimized cell and offers the lowest cost per Wh. As consumers move to the flat designs, the 18650 is peaking and there is over-production. Batteries may eventually be made with flat cells but experts say that the 18650 will continue to lead the market. Figure 4 shows the over-supply situation that has been corrected thanks to the demand of the Tesla electric vehicles.
 

Over Supply Figure 4: Demand and supply of the 18650.

The demand for the 18650 would have peaked in 2011 had it not been for Tesla. The switch to a flat-design in consumer products and larger format for the electric powertrain will eventually peak the 18650.

Courtesy Avicenne Energy

The larger 26650 cell with a diameter of 26mm instead of 18mm did not gain the same popularity as the 18650. The 26650 is commonly used in load-leveling systems with Li iron phosphate.

Some lead acid systems also borrow the cylindrical design. Known as the Hawker Cyclone, this cell offers improved cell stability, higher discharge currents and better temperature stability compared to the conventional prismatic design.

Even though the cylindrical cell does not fully utilize the space by creating air cavities on side-by-side placement, the 18650 has a higher energy density than a prismatic/pouch Li-ion cell. The 3Ah 18650 delivers 248Wh/kg, whereas a modern pouch cell has only 143Ah/kg. The higher energy density of the cylindrical cell compensates for its less ideal stacking characteristics. The empty space can be used for cooling to improve thermal management.

Cell disintegration cannot always be prevented but propagation can. The cylindrical concept lends itself better to stop propagation should one cell take off than is possible with the prismatic/pouch design. In addition, a cylindrical design does not change size whereas the prismatic/pouch will grow. A 5mm prismatic can expand to 8mm with use. In spite of the apparent advantages of the cylindrical design, advances are made with the pouch cell and experts predict a shift to this flat format.


Button Cell

The button cell, also known as coin cell, satisfied the requirement of compact design in portable devices of the 1980s. Higher voltages were achieved by stacking the cells into a tube. Cordless telephones, medical devices and security wands at airports used these batteries.

Although small and inexpensive to build, the stacked button cell fell out of favor and gave way to more conventional battery formats. A drawback of the button cell is swelling if charged too rapidly. Button cells have no safety vent and can only be charged at a 10- to 16-hour charge; however, newer designs claim rapid charge capability.

Most button cells in use today are non-rechargeable and are found in medical implants, watches, hearing aids, car keys and memory backup. Figure 5 illustrates the button cells with accompanying cross section. A cautionary note applies to button cells to keep out of reach of children as swallowing can cause serious health problems.
 

Button cells

Button cells part 2

Figure 5: Button cells. Also known as coin cell, most are primary for single-cell use.
Courtesy of Sanyo and Panasonic


Prismatic Cell

Introduced in the early 1990s, the modern prismatic cell satisfies the demand for thinner sizes. Wrapped in elegant packages resembling a box of chewing gum or a small chocolate bar, prismatic cells make optimal use of space by using the layered approach. Others designs may be wound and flattened into a pseudo-prismatic jelly. These cells are predominantly found in mobile phones, tablets and low-profile laptops and range from 800mAh to 4,000mAh. No universal format exists and each manufacturer designs its own.

Prismatic cells are also available in large formats. Packaged in welded aluminum housings, the cells deliver capacities of 20 to 30Ah and are primarily used for electric powertrains in hybrid and electric vehicles. Figure 6 shows the prismatic cell.

Cross section of a prismatic cell

 

Figure 6: Cross section
of a prismatic cell

The prismatic cell improves space utilization and allows flexible design but it can be more expensive to manufacture, less efficient in thermal management and have a shorter cycle life than the cylindrical design.

Courtesy of Polystor Corporation

 

The prismatic cell requires a slightly thicker wall to compensate for decreased mechanical stability compared to the cylindrical design. Some swelling due to gas buildup is normal. Discontinue using the battery if the distortion becomes so large that it presses against the battery compartment. Bulging batteries can damage equipment.


Pouch Cell

In 1995 the pouch cell surprised the battery world with a radical new design. Rather than using a metallic cylinder and glass-to-metal electrical feed-through, conductive foil-tabs are welded to the electrodes and brought to the outside in a fully sealed way. Figure 7 illustrates a pouch cell.

The pouch cell

Figure 7: The pouch cell

The pouch cell offers a simple, flexible and lightweight solution to battery design. Exposure to high humidity and hot temperature can shorten service life.

Courtesy of Cadex

The pouch cell makes the most efficient use of space and achieves a 90–95 percent packaging efficiency, the highest among battery packs. Eliminating the metal enclosure reduces weight but the cell needs some support in the battery compartment. The pouch pack finds applications in consumer, military and automotive applications. No standardized pouch cells exist; each manufacturer designs its own.

Pouch packs are commonly Li-polymer and serve well as Power Cells by delivery high current. The capacity is lower than Li-ion in the cylindrical package and the flat-cell may be less durable. Expect some swelling; 8–10 percent over 500 cycles is normal. Provision must be made in the battery compartment for expansion. It is best not to stack pouch cells on top of each other but to lay them flat side by side. Prevent sharp edges that can stress the pouch as they expand.

Extreme swelling is a concern but battery manufacturers insist that these batteries do not generate excess gases. Most swelling can be blamed on improper manufacturing. Users of pouch packs have reported up to three percent swelling incidents on a poor batch run. The pressure created can crack the battery cover, and in some cases break the display and electronic circuit boards. Manufacturers say that an inflated cell is safe. Discontinue using the battery and do not puncture it in close proximity to heat or fire. The escaping gases can ignite. Figure 8 shows a swollen pouch cell.

 

Swelling pouch cell

 

Figure 8: Swelling pouch cell

Swelling can occur as part of gas generation. Battery manufacturers are at odds why this happens. A 5mm (0.2”) battery in a hard shell can grow to 8mm (0.3”), more in a foil package.

Courtesy of Cadex

Pouch cells are manufactured by including a temporary “gasbag” on the side. During the first charge, gases escape into the gasbag. The gasbag is cut off and the pack is resealed as part of the finishing process. Subsequent charges should no longer produce gases. Ballooning indicates that the manufacturing process may not be fully understood. Manual labor may also contribute the cause.

The prismatic and pouch cells have the potential for greater energy than the cylindrical format but the technology to produce large formats is not yet mature. The cost per kWh is still higher than the 18650. As a comparison, the cost for the Nissan Leaf with Pouch/Prismatic cells is $455/kWh and best practice (DoE/AABC) with pouch/prismatic is $350/kWh. The lowest price per kWh is the Tesla EV with the 18650 cells. The Tesla Gen III battery goes for $290/kWh (Estimations by Greenwich Strategy).
 

Summary

With the introduction of the sintered nickel-cadmium in 1947, the rechargeable battery became portable and moved to a cylindrical format. Internal pressure was allowed to build up that helped in the absorption of gases during charge, preventing dry out. Nickel-cadmium thus became the pioneer of the cylindrical rechargeable battery.

It was only in 1995 that the pouch cell appeared; packaged in a similar format to perishable food we buy in a store. Intended to be cheaper to manufacture and more flexible in form factor, further developments are needed to bring this amazing concept cell to the same performance level of the cylindrical version.

Figure 9 illustrates the price in $US/Wh of the cylindrical, prismatic and pouch cell, also known as laminated cell. While the cylindrical cell has been most economical, the flat-cell designs are getting more competitive in price. Once equal and better in performance to the cylindrical counterpart, a shift to the pouch cell may occur, but battery expert estimate a few years before this will happen.

 

Price Li-ion Figure 9: Price of Li-ion ($US/Wh)

The price of Li-ion is dropping and the differences between prismatic and pouch formats (laminate) are narrowing.

Courtesy Avicenne Energy

 

Frequently Asked Questions about Li-ion Cells

Not all cells are made the same and true performance will only come to light after a battery pack has endured two and more years of field service. When building a pack, select a cell that meets the loading requirements and then build it a bit larger to reduce stress. Evaluating a cell by cycling does not reflect true field conditions. A serious pack maker must pay the price for a quality cell. Table 10 answers FAQs.
 

Question Fact
Is lithium-polymer superior? “Polymer” is a Li-ion in a pouch pack with no common definition. (See BU-206 Li-polymer Battery: Substance of Hype)
Do I get more capacity using flat than cylindrical cells? No. Prismatic/pouch cell have lower capacities than the 18650. Li-ion pouch cell = 150Ah/kg; Li-ion in 18650 up to 248Wh/kg.
Do flat cells pack easier than cylindrical? Flat cells must allow space for swelling; the 18650 does not change size. Thermal management is harder with flat cell.
Is the flat cell cheaper than the cylindrical? No. 18650 has lowest cost/Wh. The cost of flat cell pack is $350/kWh; 18650 pack is $290/kWh (EV battery pricing).
What do I need to know when buying a Li-ion cell?
  • Energy Cells are optimized for capacity, commonly used in consumer products. Cycle life is less important.
  • Power Cells deliver high currents, are rugged, have long life   but have a lower capacity may be more expensive.
Do I need cell-balancing?
  • Single-cell pack doesn’t need matching; tolerance not critical.
  • The cells for a multi-pack must be matched. Most quality cells for multi-cell design are matched.
What does the protection circuit do? The mandatory protection circuit only controls outside stress and cannot stop a disintegrating cell once in process.
What should I observe in a pack design? Isolate the cells to prevent propagation of a failing cell. Quality cells have a very low failure rate.
How are quality cell checked? Manufacturers include self-discharge test and cell matching.  Yield is 50–100%. Rejected cells are sold at barging prices.
How is the cost divided? On an 18650, 50% goes to material; 50% is manufacturing.
What are recommended 18650 makers? Panasonic, Samsung, LG Chem, E-One Moli.

Table 10: Clearing misunderstandings in the choice of Li-ion cells
 

About the Author

Isidor Buchmann is the founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics Inc. For three decades, Buchmann has studied the behavior of rechargeable batteries in practical, everyday applications, has written award-winning articles including the best-selling book “Batteries in a Portable World,” now in its third edition. Cadex specializes in the design and manufacturing of battery chargers, analyzers and monitoring devices. For more information on batteries, visit www.batteryuniversity.com; product information is on www.cadex.com.

Last Updated 2015-02-06


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Comments

On February 4, 2016 at 5:55am
jason wrote:

this article provides a comprehensive and professional introduction of different types of lithium ion battery, as a former employee in ATL,i have recovered my knowleage on laminated lithium ion batteries design and production processes by reading this article,now i worked in EV industry as a BMS strategy designer,i would like to often visite this site to expand my knowleage in this field.

On March 3, 2016 at 10:28pm
Douglas Dunn wrote:

Another great article! I remember seeing the tear down of a Leaf at Nissans development center in California… It’s interesting how Nissan used pouch cells and then encased them into metal modules… With a smart network that monitors individual cell temp and condition in theory you can replace defective cells, although there are less modules then in the Tesla…

I just purchased a soul EV and I can’t wait to dig into the technical specs, I understand they use a different chemistry then the leaf… http://insideevs.com/full-details-released-on-2015-kia-soul-evs-advanced-battery/


Many thanks to the folks at cadex! Proud to have you folks right here in my home town!

On November 16, 2016 at 12:37pm
CARLOS F. CANETE wrote:

I wonder how big a TFB —Li-ion or other type— could be. In the cylindrical type, are the number of spires limited? Is the size proportional to fire hazards? In EV, I can´t think of a series of flashlight battery trays weighing hundreds of pounds and occupying so much space. Is the Pleistocene of EV batteries coming to an end in a near future? Can we manufacture bigger and lighter batteries?


Thank you.

On March 1, 2017 at 3:38am
Jesús García wrote:

Hello,
What would be the best battery to use in a motorbike for participating in competition race? We need high power for high speed and the less time possible to recharge.
Is there any graphene pouch cell available to fulfill this requirements?

Thanks!