BU-106: Primary Batteries

Appreciate the importance of non-rechargeable (primary) batteries.

Rechargeable batteries are gaining such high media attention that some might consider non-rechargeable batteries as old technology. Primaries play an important role, especially when charging is impractical or impossible, such as in military combat, rescue missions and forest-fire services. Other applications for primaries are pacemakers for heart patients, tire pressure gauges in vehicles, intelligent drill bits in mining, animal-tracking, light beacons, not to forget wristwatches, remote controls, electric keys and children’s toys. High specific energy, long storage times and instant readiness give the primary battery a unique advantage over other power sources. They can be carried to remote locations and used instantly, even after long storage. They are also readily available and environmentally friendly.

Carbon-zinc, also known as the Leclanché battery, is one of the least expensive primary batteries and often comes with consumer devices when the batteries are included. Alkaline-manganese, known as alkaline, is an improved version. Lewis Urry invented it in 1949 while working with the Eveready Battery Company Laboratory in Parma, Ohio. Alkaline delivers more energy at higher load currents than carbon-zinc and does not leak when depleted, although it is not totally leak-proof either. A discharging alkaline generates hydroxide gases. Pressure buildup can rupture the seal and cause corrosion in form of a feathery crystalline structure that can spread to neighboring parts and cause damage. All primary batteries produce a small amount of gas on discharge and device using them must have provision for venting. 

Primary batteries have one of the highest energy densities. A regular household alkaline provides about 40 percent more energy than the average Li-ion. The most energy-dense primary is the lithium battery that comes in many versions and includes lithium iron disulfide (Li-FeS2), lithium manganese dioxide and lithium-thionyl chloride, by which lithium-thionyl chloride has the highest specific energy of more than 500Wh/kg. Figure 1 compares the gravimetric energy densities of lead acid, NiMH, Li-ion, alkaline and lithium primary batteries. (See also BU-701: How to Prime Batteries)

Specific energy comparison of secondary and primary batteries

Figure 1: Specific energy comparison of secondary and primary batteries
Secondary batteries are typically rated at 1C; alkaline uses much lower discharge currents.
Courtesy of Cadex

Specific energy indicates the energy a battery can hold. This, however, does not guarantee delivery and/or loading capabilities. Primary batteries tend to have high internal resistance, which limits the discharge to light loads such as remote controls, flashlights and portable entertainment devices. Digital cameras are borderline cases – a power tool on alkaline would be impracticable.

Manufacturers of consumer primary batteries only specify specific energy; the specific power (ability to deliver power) is not published. While most secondary batteries are rated at a 1C discharge current, the capacity of primary batteries is measured with a very low current of 25mA, a fraction of a C. In addition, the batteries are allowed to go down to a very low voltage of 0.8 volts per cell before they are deemed fully discharge. This evaluation method provides impressive readings on paper, but the results are deceiving under a more demanding load.

Figure 2 compares the performance of primary and secondary batteries as “Rated” and “Actual.” Rated is the Wh/kg when discharging at a very low current; Actual is the Wh/kg derived when discharging at 1C. The graph clearly shows that the primary alkaline performs well with a load that is typical to an entertainment device, while the secondary batteries are more resilient under loading. A long-life alkaline (not shown) will provide better results.

Energy comparison under load

Figure 2: Energy comparison under load. ”Rated” refers to a mild discharge; “Actual” is a load at 1C. High internal resistance limits alkaline battery to light loads.
Courtesy of Cadex

The reason for the sharp performance drop on primary batteries is high internal resistance, which causes a voltage collapse under load. The already high resistance increases further as the battery depletes on discharge. For example, when the battery goes flat on a digital camera, much usable capacity is left behind at a reduced discharge rate. A spent alkaline can power a kitchen clock for two years.

Table 3 illustrates the capacity of standard alkaline batteries with loads that are typical to personal entertainment devices or small flashlights. Discharging at fractional C-rates produces high capacities, skewing a comparison with rechargeable batteries.

Alkaline specifications
Table 3: Alkaline specifications.
The discharge resembles entertainment devices with low loads.
Courtesy of Panasonic

Primary batteries are practical for applications that draw power occasionally for a short time but they can get expensive when in continuous use. Price becomes an issue when the packs are replaced after each mission, regardless of length of use. Discarding partially used batteries is common, especially in fleet applications and critical missions. It is convenient to simply issue fresh packs with each assignment rather than estimating usage. At a battery conference a US Army general said that half of the batteries discarded still have 50 percent energy left.

The state-of-charge of primary batteries can be estimated by applying a brief load and checking the voltage drop. Each battery type will need its own look-up table as the resistive characteristics differ. A more accurate method is counting out-flowing energy, a measurement also known as coulomb counting. (See BU-903: How to Measure State-of-charge – Coulomb Counting). This requires a more expensive circuit and is seldom done.

Last Updated 3/10/2015

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On April 6, 2011 at 8:20pm
Ramesh wrote:


On December 14, 2011 at 8:47am
Stephen J. Nichols wrote:

I beg to differ on alkaline batteries not leaking when. I have had a couple of flashlights that were used only a few times for brief periods and six months later would have to have the batteries almost driven out and yes they were turned off. Also televison remotes that worked a few minutes ago, and won’t now. When you go to change the batteries you have to clean the crud and corrosion out before installing the new batteries. From the looks of the amount of leakage and corrosion it had been going on for some time.
Do keep Battery University updated and on the web it does have a world of good information. An extremely handy reference.

On December 18, 2011 at 4:50pm
Mike wrote:

However Secondary cells are very poor to useless for long life low power consumption or device used intermittently with gaps of months (or even a few weeks for higher capacity NiMH) between use.  I recently had application for 80V at 5.5mA. The most economical and long use between replacements was 6 stacks of 26 x CR2032 Lithium coin cell parallel with 6 x 1N4148 diodes. About 6x capacity of Alkaline PP3 and recharging such a number of NiMH or Lithium ion in series is problematic as well as avoiding reverse charging a cell.

On February 14, 2012 at 7:57am
Nick wrote:

How I can measure the capacity of Zinc-carbon 6V battery ? I can discharge the batt by resistor f.e. 100ohm/1W. What are the formulas to calculate the capacity/Ah if I have cut off voltage f.e. 3.6V and know the discharging time in hours to achieve 3.6V.

On December 23, 2012 at 1:21am
Vipin wrote:

Can I use lithium and alkaline batteries together in one device?

On July 17, 2013 at 6:09pm
Kaz wrote:

The article is correct; alkaline batteries should not normally leak, whereas for zinc-carbon batteries, this is practically an expected behavior.

The reason why zinc-carbon batteries leak is that the casing of the battery serves as the negative terminal. The casing is consumed as the battery drains, and can perforate!

This is not true of alkaline batteries, whose casing is not one of the electrodes.

That is not to say that the casing cannot fail, but it’s not expected that mere discharge of the battery will “eat” through the casing.

On July 17, 2013 at 6:15pm
Kaz wrote:

You can use lithium and alkaline batteries in the same device, but not on the same circuit. They have different discharge rates.
The device has to have some separate circuits with separate power sources. This happens. For instance, a device that draws the bulk of its power from AAA batteries could have a coin battery on its circuit board (on a dedicated circuit) which maintains the contents of a non-volatile static RAM (NVRAM) chip. So that’s an example of one device with two kinds of batteries. A much more ancient example of multiple batteries are portable vacuum tube devices, which used three separate batteries: a battery for the vacuum tube heaters, another one (high voltage, 30 or more volts) for the plate, and a third battery for the grid bias!

If different types of batteries are connected in parallel, bad things will happen as one type of battery discharges to a lower voltage than the other (or is that way initially) and tries to charge the other.

In series, it is even worse, because a good battery in series with a dead one will reverse-bias the dead one (impose a reverse polarity on it).

Even new and old primary batteries OF THE SAME TYPE should not be put in series; you should change series battery packs at the same time.


On October 29, 2013 at 4:24pm
chloe wrote:

can you tell me information on a great value battery, a family dollar battery, duracell battery and a energizer battery. if you can that would be great !! im in the 7th grade and im doing a science project on battery life!!! if you can do this that would be great!!!

On December 14, 2014 at 9:42am
arsalan wrote:

I have fujitsu ah530 laptop i tried to replace the battery cell of my old battery with the same voltage and amphere cells but I failed the battery’s Positive terminal does not have any charge. I arranged another old dead battery from my friend but same results. in both senario the +ve terminal is not having any charge, when placed to laptop it does not
start on battery showing error “0% charge plugged in charging consider replacing your battery”. how to on solid state switch so that their would be a charge on +ve terminal and how can I resolve the issue please help me