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How does the Lead Acid Battery Work

- Jan 30, 2018 -

How does the Lead Acid Battery Work?

Invented by the French physician Gaston Planté in 1859, lead acid was the first rechargeable battery for commercial use. Despite its advanced age, the lead chemistry continues to be in wide use today. There are good reasons for its popularity; lead acid is dependable and inexpensive on a cost-per-watt base. There are few other batteries that deliver bulk power as cheaply as lead acid, and this makes the battery cost-effective for automobiles, golf cars, forklifts, marine and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS).

The grid structure of the lead acid battery is made from a lead alloy. Pure lead is too soft and would not support itself, so small quantities of other metals are added to get the mechanical strength and improve electrical properties. The most common additives are antimony, calcium, tin and selenium. These batteries are often known as “lead-antimony” and “lead­calcium.”

Adding antimony and tin improves deep cycling but this increases water consumption and escalates the need to equalize. Calcium reduces self-discharge, but the positive lead-calcium plate has the side effect of growing due to grid oxidation when being over-charged. Modern lead acid batteries also make use of doping agents such as selenium, cadmium, tin and arsenic to lower the antimony and calcium content.

Lead acid is heavy and is less durable than nickel- and lithium-based systems when deep cycled. A full discharge causes strain and each discharge/charge cycle permanently robs the battery of a small amount of capacity. This loss is small while the battery is in good operating condition, but the fading increases once the performance drops to half the nominal capacity. This wear-down characteristic applies to all batteries in various degrees.

Depending on the depth of discharge, lead acid for deep-cycle applications provides 200 to 300 discharge/charge cycles. The primary reasons for its relatively short cycle life are grid corrosion on the positive electrode, depletion of the active material and expansion of the positive plates. This aging phenomenon is accelerated at elevated operating temperatures and when drawing high discharge currents. 

Charging a lead acid battery is simple, but the correct voltage limits must be observed. Choosing a low voltage limit shelters the battery, but this produces poor performance and causes a buildup of sulfation on the negative plate. A high voltage limit improves performance but forms grid corrosion on the positive plate. While sulfation can be reversed if serviced in time, corrosion is permanent. 

Lead acid does not lend itself to fast charging and with most types, a full charge takes 14–16 hours. The battery must always be stored at full state-of-charge. Low charge causes sulfation, a condition that robs the battery of performance. Adding carbon on the negative electrode reduces this problem but this lowers the specific energy. 

Lead acid has a moderate life span, but it is not subject to memory as nickel-based systems are, and the charge retention is best among rechargeable batteries. While NiCd loses approximately 40 percent of their stored energy in three months, lead acid self-discharges the same amount in one year. The lead acid battery works well at cold temperatures and is superior to lithium-ion when operating in subzero conditions.

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