Technology Explained

How a Battery Works and 3 Ways You Can Ruin It

Gavin Phillips 26-01-2015

One of the most useful electronic devices available to us is also one of the most common. The modern battery is featured in so many of our favourite technologies that you could almost be forgiven for not spending time learning about their workings.


But the time has now come for you to expand your knowledge base by understanding just how the smartphone in your pocket is powered Keep Your Android's Battery Healthy With These Tips Software and apps can only go so far -- what about how to charge and discharge your battery? Learn all the tricks here. Read More , what are the common battery varieties and what you can do to prolong their lifespan How To Increase The Lifetime Of Your Laptop Battery A laptop with a short battery life is a nuisance, especially when you're on the road and nowhere close to a power socket. To make each individual charge of your battery last longer, learn about... Read More .

A Brief History of Batteries

Alessandro Volta demonstrated the first functioning electromagnetic battery in 1800. His stack of copper and zinc plates separated by brine-soaked paper discs produced a steady voltage for a ‘reasonable’ amount of time. This was known as a voltaic pile and was the precursor for a generation of battery-powered experimentation.

Voltaic Pile

In 1836, John Frederic Daniell standardised the battery’s design. A copper pot filled with copper sulphate solution immersed in an unglazed earthenware container filled with sulphuric acid and a zinc electrode became the de-facto battery standard, featuring across countless electrical telegraph networks.

Fast forward to Oxford University, 1979. John Goodenough and Koichi Mizushima demonstrated a working rechargeable cell with a 4 volt range that used lithium cobalt oxide as the positive electrode and lithium metal as the negative. The precursor of the lithium cell as we know it was born – but was only commercialised 1991 by Sony and Asahi Kasei in their portable electronic devices.


What Is A Modern Battery?

We use the term modern battery to describe the electrochemical cells that power our portable technology devices. Batteries fall into two common categories:

  • Single-use: disposable batteries with electrodes that are irreversibly altered during usage.
  • Rechargeable: reusable batteries with electrodes that are restored by reverse current.

Most modern portable electronics feature a lithium-based battery, the most common of which is the lithium-ion (Li-ion) cell. You may also encounter a lithium-polymer (Li-Po) cell which has the same electrochemical makeup and general chemistry as its counterpart, but costs more to make and has a lower energy density.

Li-Po Battery

Nonetheless, Li-Po batteries are still popular due to their lightweight, flexible designs and their improved operating capabilities at higher and lower temperatures, something Li-ion can struggle with.


Li-ion batteries usually contain an intercalated lithium compound such as lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) as one electrode, graphite for the second and an organic solvent as an electrolyte. This compound is used due to its high energy density and slow loss of charge when not in use, as well as requiring no memory-cycling to prolong the battery lifespan Calibrate & Maintain Your MacBook Battery For Best Performance If you correctly calibrate and maintain your MacBook battery, it's possible to improve performance and put off replacing it for as long as possible. Read More .

IBM Lithium Ion Battery

All lithium-based batteries will contain a Pressure Temperature Coefficient. This is a failsafe switch or sensor designed to keep the battery from overheating in extreme conditions or overuse, a process that usually renders the battery useless by permanently damaging the chemical compounds that make the charge/discharge process possible.

The Charging Process

Lithium-based batteries have become the portable technology battery of choice due to their high energy density and rechargeable qualities New Battery Technology Recharges in Two Minutes, Lasts Twenty Years There's a new battery technology on the horizon, and there's a good chance it's going to change the way you use your devices Read More .


During the charging process, lithium ions move through the electrolyte from the positive lithium cobalt oxide electrode to the negative graphite electrode. When discharging or in use, the ions move back through the electrolyte, from negative to positive. This process happens at a relatively high voltage – 3.7 volts compared to an alkaline AA battery at 1.5 volts – which is why lithium-based batteries have become the portable power source of choice for many consumer electronics.

laptop battery

Lithium-based batteries also feature as part of larger battery packs The 6 Best Backup Battery Packs for Extending Your Phone's Uptime A battery pack is one of the best ways to charge your phone in an emergency. Here are a few portable power banks that might be just what you need. Read More , such as a laptop battery. These battery packs feature a number of lithium-ion cells bound into one larger component and will contain a number of additional components:

  • Temperature Sensor: Sensor monitoring temperature inside the pack in an attempt to maintain safety and longevity of the cells.
  • Voltage Regulator: Sensor and circuit for monitoring and regulating the output/capacity of each cell inside the pack
  • Battery Charge State: Sensor informing operating system of current charge state (e.g. 47% full)
  • Connector: Pack connector for laptop, brand specific.

Lithium-based batteries can perform thousands of charge/discharge cycles before the quality of the cell begins to truly degrade, but there are several ways that you can ruin your battery, potentially putting yourself in danger in the process.


Battery Maintenance

The positive electrode found in most lithium based batteries, LiCoO2, can present a number of hazards if the cell becomes damaged. Unlike a number of other battery options, compromising the flammable, pressurised compound can produce extreme results. To mitigate this, lithium-based battery cells are subject to a number of safety tests, many of which are more stringent than their acid-based counterparts.


There have been a number of instances of lithium-based batteries igniting in extreme heat conditions. Batteries under heat duress combined with any additional, unexpected pressure or a short-circuit can ‘explode’ leaving a destroyed battery Apple is Offering Free Replacement For 1st Generation iPod Nano [News] As rare as it is for Apple to publicly admit a malfunction, this one is too big to overlook. According to Apple, the batteries of some first generation iPod nanos may overheat and become a... Read More and, more often than not, a damaged piece of portable technology.

Damaged Lithium Ion Battery

Each lithium-based battery has an inbuilt separator contained within the cell. This distinguishes between the positive and negative electrodes during the charge/discharge process. If this separator becomes perforated or damaged, there is a chance the electrodes could make contact. This causes the battery to experience a rapid gain in heat which can lead to an explosion.

The battery has a venting mechanism to prevent such an occurrence but ultimately, due to the nature of the chemical compound being vented, the chance of an explosive reaction still remains due to the heat generated by the chemical reaction.

Discharge Ratings

Lithium-based batteries prefer a partial discharge How to Make Your Phone's Battery Last Longer and Hold More Juice Battery life is one of the biggest struggles of modern-day electronics. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops all deal with it -- so what can you do to maximize the amount of time you get per charge? Read More , rather than ‘deep’ or ‘full’. They do not have a charge memory so a partial discharge doesn’t affect future performance.

Empty Battery

However, a ‘deep’ discharge i.e. completely depleting the battery, will cause the voltage of a lithium-based battery to fall and could result in a permanently damaged battery.

Aging Process

Lithium-based batteries age. Their maximum lifespan is thought to be between 2-4 years What To Do If Your Laptop Or Tablet Battery Won’t Charge Occasionally we receive a question on MakeUseOf Answers about a battery that refuses to charge. This isn’t surprising. Batteries are known to only last so long, and poor conditions can drastically reduce their life. Issues... Read More depending on the number of charge/discharge cycles experienced. That is not to say you should keep track of the number of times you use the battery as that would be rather difficult. But putting off using a new battery and leaving it on the shelf will not prolong the battery life – the battery will still only last the same 2-4 years.

It also worth checking when a battery was manufactured when purchasing a new portable tech product. If it has been sat redundant in a warehouse for a year, that’s a year of battery life already ebbed away. Contact the product manufacturer and ask for a new battery where possible.

There are modern battery management applications that claim to be able to reverse the current accepted cell degradation over time, such as batteryOS‘, a product that will be launched in February 2015.


The next generation of lithium batteries Battery Technologies That Are Going to Change the World Battery tech has been growing more slowly than other technologies, and is now the long tent pole in a staggering number of industries. What will the future of battery technology be? Read More will feature lithium-air chemistry, allowing for extremely high energy-density in increasingly lightweight designs. Li-Air batteries gain an energy-density advantage over their traditional counterparts by utilising abundant oxygen to induce current flow, rather than storing the required chemical oxidiser internally.

Battery Energy Density

Unfortunately, research is still required in a number of key areas before a commercially viable Li-Air product will feature in our portable devices.

Has this helped your understanding of the batteries in your portable devices? Let us know what you think below!

Image Credits: Batteries via Wikimedia CommonsVoltaic Pile via Wikimedia CommonsLithium-Ion Battery via Wikimedia Commons, Lithium-Polymer Battery via Wikimedia Commons, 3GS with Broken Battery via Wikimedia Commons, Empty Battery via Pixabay, Battery Energy Density via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Brian Brooke
    September 16, 2019 at 6:53 am

    This article is difficult to digest. I was going to pick it apart, but I figured it was 4 years ago and you probably got better. If you updated the title to reflect what this article actually contains, then maybe it would come across in a positive light.

    In addition, this website was crashing my browser. I suspect one of your advertisers was using my CPU / hard drive to do bit coin mining. I was able to fix it by installing an ad blocker. Please review / revise advertisers so that I can remove ad blocker.

  2. Philip
    March 21, 2018 at 1:55 am

    Good article but the comment "Alessandro Volta demonstrated the first functioning electromagnetic battery in 1800." under "A brief history of batteries" is completely wrong. There is nothing electromagnetic about the way batteries function. "Electrolytic" is the word that should have been used.

  3. Lynn
    February 24, 2015 at 3:43 am

    Perhaps I'm missing something ... what are the three ways you can "ruin" a battery?
    Two seem to be:
    exposure to high heat and using it until a deep charge is needed.
    What is the third that I can control?

    Please go easy - a complete non-techie who just attempts to keep up by reading sources like this ...

  4. Gavin
    February 2, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Hi John. Thanks for that. Will pop a note into an editor to get that changed. Thank you for reading!

  5. John Williams
    January 31, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    "Pressure Temperature Coefficient" in the article should read Positive Temp Co-eff.
    It is a cheap resistor sensor that reacts to rising temperature and tells the charger circuit to stop. It helps to prevent fires in Lithium batteries.
    Electronic pressure sensors are much more complex and expensive.
    Mechanical pressure widgets are used in NiCad cells to prevent the cell exploding .
    Old battery tech swells up and explodes. New Lithium based chemistry catches fire ...... but only when you overcharge them.

  6. Shahir
    January 29, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    I like this article. But you should also have mentioned the new Ti Nano tubes based technology (under development). It will make waves I think.