02Aug 2015

A statement of this devilish nature during the middle ages would have earned its author a burning at the stake. The mere notion of a “battery” would have probably been in the realm of druids and witches, and reviving anything dead would have been…well, enough said, it is the 21st century.

I will digress today a little and talk about your average primary (i.e., non-rechargeable) battery, the type that Energizer, Duracell, and their competitors sell billions of every year, all of which wind up in the trash bin or recycling centers — excepting the batteries that sit on one’s desk for ages as if somehow they will disappear on their own. How do these batteries die, and when they do, are they really dead? Let’s explore.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on Alkaline batteries. The typical ones, like AA or AAA, are nominally rated at 1.5 V. In other words, when they are fresh and unused, one would measure 1.5 V at the battery terminals. As the battery is inserted into a gadget and gets used, the voltage at the terminals drops, and fast it does. As the voltage drops, it reaches a point where it is no longer sufficient to power the electronics in the gadget. Often, these gadgets, such as toys, employ inexpensive electronics. This means that these electronics do not employ the most modern electronics circuitry. This is parlance for electronics that are not low-voltage and low-power. In other words, these inexpensive electronics draw more current than they need to, and they operate at higher voltages than they should — all in the spirit of saving costs. But these operating requirements place a bigger burden on the battery, the result of which the battery’s voltage drains rapidly and meets an early death.

It should be apparent to the reader that the end of the battery — its “death” —  is now defined as the time at which its terminal voltage is no longer able to power the electronics. This is somewhat subjective because that clearly depends on the quality and sophistication of the electronics in your gadget. Usually, many inexpensive electronics begin to stop operating somewhere between 1.2 V and 1.35 V. Very rarely, one may see electronics get lower in operating voltages but such gadgets would most likely be associated with higher price points, and could very well just use an embedded lithium-ion battery to project an image of a “good” product.

Looking at the Energizer E91 specification sheet, one immediately can observe that this battery has a life of less than 2 hours to hit 1.3 V, and 3 hours to hit 1.2 V (assuming a discharge current of 250 mA). At this point, the electronics begin to stop operating; the cheap display on your child’s toy begins to fade, and voila, you pronounce the battery dead and discard it.

But wait! Is it really true that the battery is dead? Again, it is a matter of definition. For a helpless parent trying to appease a screaming child, the battery is DEAD. But to some engineers and entrepreneurs, they will be quick to observe that this battery continues to hold a lot of charge and energy. Looking at the voltage chart above for the E91, the area under the red curve is the amount of “energy” that the battery holds. So it becomes immediately clear that if the battery is declared dead at 1.2 V, it continues to hold about 75% of its original energy. This is a lot!

So the magic question becomes how to access this extra energy well? and how to do so in a cost-effective and reliable manner? This is where I will put a plug for the company Batteroo Inc.. The team figured out an elegant solution to put a very thin reusable sleeve around the presumed dead battery with low-power electronics that will “boost and regulate” the raw terminal voltage of the battery back up to a higher voltage, say 1.5 V, sufficient now to operate a gadget. This has an effect of reviving this “dead” battery and substantially extending its life. I love clever and simple ideas! Batteroo’s challenge is now to fight off the battery vendors who will not be pleased with selling fewer batteries.