BU-301: A look at Old and New Battery Packaging

Discover familiar battery formats, some of which going back to the late 1800s.

Early batteries of the 1700s and 1800s developed in Europe were mostly encased in glass jars. As batteries grew in size, jars shifted to sealed wooden containers and composite materials. In the 1890s, battery manufacturing spread to the United States and in 1896 the National Carbon Company successfully produced a standard cell for widespread consumer use. It was the carbon-zinc Columbia Dry Cell Battery producing 1.5 volt and measuring six inches in length.

With the move to portability, sealed cylindrical cells emerged that led to standards. The International Electrochemical Commission (IEC), a non-governmental standards organization founded in 1906, developed standards for most rechargeable batteries. 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. Some sizes come in fractural lengths mostly in nickel-based chemistries.
 

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.

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 measure the thickness in tenth of millimeters (mm). The next two digits designate the widths and the last two provide the length of the cell in mm. 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 and 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 in consumer products with built-in obsolescence. 

In the early days, a battery was perceived “big” and this reflects in the sizing convention. While the “F” nomenclature may have been seen as mid-sized in the late 1800s, our forefathers did not anticipate that a battery resembling a credit card could do computing, serve as telephone and shoot pictures. Running out of letters towards the smaller sizes led to the awkward of AA, AAA and AAAA designations.

Since the introduction of the 9V battery in 1956, no new formats have emerged. Meanwhile portable devices lowered the operating voltages; 9V is overkill. The battery has six cells in series and is expensive to manufacture. A 3.6V alternative would serve well. This imaginary pack would 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 that are based on 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 will follow the failed attempt of common laptop batteries in the 1990s.

Last updated 2015-08-31


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Comments

On March 1, 2011 at 2:37am
Atul Gupta wrote:

i have seen some Li-ion pouch cells packaging with terminals on top. can we mount the same cell in 90 Deg rotation condition i.e. terminals are in side instead of top?

On August 18, 2011 at 11:00am
Steven wrote:

The B cell battery is 20.1 millimeters in diameter and 56.8 millimeters in length. It is still in use in Europe.

On February 17, 2012 at 3:58pm
BWMichael wrote:

Atul Gupta: Of course. You could easily modify the battery yourself to have the contacts on the side. Or just turn the battery 90 degrees? I see mobile phone batteries all the time which go in the phone sideways, the contacts being on the side of the phone.

On December 21, 2012 at 9:42pm
Matty deBarri wrote:

Slight correction to table 1:  26700 slightly longer than 26650 (5mm).  Diameters identical.

On October 25, 2013 at 11:20am
Eric Q wrote:

There are also two even larger sizes of Li-Ion batteries which are used in flashlights, among other things.  They are, the 32600(32mm X 60mm) which is about the size of “D” cell; and the 32650(32mm X 65mm), just slightly longer, the largest cylindrical size that I am aware of.  It’s a continuation of the 18650 and 26650 format, which allows an even higher capacity.  There are also similar numbered sizes, such as 14500, and 10440, which are equivalent to the “AA” and “AAA”, respectively; and many, many other variations.

On November 23, 2013 at 7:17pm
Heiko wrote:

I didn’t know the 18650 were used in almost all laptop batteries and even electric vehicles.

But they are also typical batteries for modern led flashlights, I learned about them looking for a professional head-mounted flashlight - I finally got a Spark headlight and two 3400mAh protected 18650s with Panasonic cells. Perfect combination, that thing is an intense flood light and the batteries last for hours on full power smile

On December 13, 2013 at 8:52am
ian wrote:

There used to be a flashlight size called Double-D.  It was twice the length of a d-cell and put out 3v.  It was popular in the maglite style flashlights of the 60’s and 70’s.  Could use them anywhere you had a 2-d stack.

On August 3, 2014 at 7:48pm
Edward wrote:

i am a battery engineer in a battery company, any battery questions please email to me [email protected] Edward