The lead acid battery was invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté and is the earliest type of rechargeable battery. Despite having a very low energy-to-weight ratio and a low energy-to-volume ratio, its ability to supply high surge currents means that the cells have a relatively large power-to-weight ratio. These features, along with their low cost, make them attractive for use in motor vehicles to provide the high current required by starter motors.

lead acid battery

As they are inexpensive compared to newer technologies, lead acid battery is widely used even when surge current is not important and other designs could provide higher energy densities. In 1999 lead–acid battery sales accounted for 40–45% of the value from batteries sold worldwide (excluding China and Russia), equivalent to a manufacturing market value of about $15 billion. Large-format lead–acid designs are widely used for storage in backup power supplies in cell phone towers, high-availability settings like hospitals, and stand-alone power systems. For these roles, modified versions of the standard cell may be used to improve storage times and reduce maintenance requirements. Gel-cells and absorbed glass-mat batteries are common in these roles, collectively known as VRLA (valve-regulated lead–acid) batteries.

In the charged state, the chemical energy of the battery is stored in the potential difference between the pure lead at the negative side and the PbO2 on the positive side, plus the aqueous sulphuric acid. The electrical energy produced by a discharging lead–acid battery can be attributed to the energy released when the strong chemical bonds of water (H2O) molecules are formed from H+ ions of the acid and O2− ions of PbO2. Conversely, during charging the battery acts as a water–splitting device.

the chemical energy of the lead acid  battery

Electrochemistry

Lead Acid Battery Discharge

In the discharged state both the positive and negative plates become lead(II) sulfate (PbSO4), and the electrolyte loses much of its dissolved sulfuric acid and becomes primarily water. The discharge process is driven by the pronounced reduction in energy when 2 H+(aq) (hydrated protons) of the acid react with O2− ions of PbO2 to form the strong O-H bonds in H2O (ca. −880 kJ per 18 g of water). This highly exergonic process also compensates for the energetically unfavorable formation of Pb2+(aq) ions or lead sulfate (PbSO4(s)).

lead acid battery discharge

Negative plate reaction

Pb(s) + HSO−4(aq) → PbSO4(s) + H+(aq) + 2e−

The release of two conducting electrons gives the lead electrode a negative charge.

As electrons accumulate they create an electric field which attracts hydrogen ions and repels sulfate ions, leading to a double-layer near the surface. The hydrogen ions screen the charged electrode from the solution which limits further reaction unless charge is allowed to flow out of electrode.

Positive plate reaction

PbO2(s) + HSO−4(aq) + 3H+(aq) + 2e− → PbSO4(s) + 2H2O(l)

taking advantage of the metallic conductivity of PbO2.

The total reaction can be written as

Pb(s) + PbO2(s) + 2H2SO4(aq) → 2PbSO4(s) + 2H2O(l) 

The net energy released per mol (207 g) of Pb(s) converted to PbSO4(s), is ca. 400 kJ, corresponding to the formation of 36 g of water. The sum of the molecular masses of the reactants is 642.6 g/mol, so theoretically a cell can produce two faradays of charge (192,971 coulombs) from 642.6 g of reactants, or 83.4 ampere-hours per kilogram (or 13.9 ampere-hours per kilogram for a 12-volt battery). For a 2-volt cell, this comes to 167 watt-hours per kilogram of reactants, but in practice a lead–acid cell gives only 30–40 watt-hours per kilogram of battery, due to the mass of the water and other constituent parts.

Lead Acid Battery Charging

In the fully charged state, the negative plate consists of lead, and the positive plate is lead dioxide. The electrolyte solution has a higher concentration of aqueous sulfuric acid, which stores most of the chemical energy.

Overcharging with high charging voltages generates oxygen and hydrogen gas by electrolysis of water, which bubbles out and is lost. The design of some types of lead-acid battery allows the electrolyte level to be inspected and topped up with pure water to replace any that has been lost this way.

lead acid battery is fully charged state

Effect of charge level on freezing point

Because of freezing-point depression, the electrolyte is more likely to freeze in a cold environment when the battery has a low charge and correspondingly low sulfuric acid concentration.

Ion motion

During discharge, H+produced at the negative plates moves into the electrolyte solution and is then consumed at the positive plates, while HSO−4 is consumed at both plates. The reverse occurs during charge. This motion can be electrically driven proton flow or Grotthuss mechanism, or by diffusion through the medium, or by flow of a liquid electrolyte medium. Since the electrolyte density is greater when the sulfuric acid concentration is higher, the liquid will tend to circulate by convection. Therefore, a liquid-medium cell tends to rapidly discharge and rapidly charge more efficiently than an otherwise similar gel cell.

Measuring the charge level

Because the electrolyte takes part in the charge-discharge reaction, this battery has one major advantage over other chemistries: It is relatively simple to determine the state of charge by merely measuring the specific gravity of the electrolyte; the specific gravity falls as the battery discharges. Some battery designs include a simple hydrometer using colored floating balls of differing density. When used in diesel-electric submarines, the specific gravity was regularly measured and written on a blackboard in the control room to indicate how much longer the boat could remain submerged.

The battery’s open-circuit voltage can also be used to gauge the state of charge. If the connections to the individual cells are accessible, then the state of charge of each cell can be determined which can provide a guide as to the state of health of the battery as a whole, otherwise the overall battery voltage may be assessed.

Voltages for common usage

IUoU battery charging is a three-stage charging procedure for lead-acid batteries. A lead-acid battery’s nominal voltage is 2 V for each cell. For a single cell, the voltage can range from 1.8 V loaded at full discharge, to 2.10 V in an open circuit at full charge.

Float voltage varies depending on battery type (i.e. flooded cells, gelled electrolyte, absorbed glass mat), and ranges from 1.8 V to 2.27 V. Equalization voltage, and charging voltage for sulfated cells, can range from 2.67 V to almost 3 V.Specific values for a given battery depend on the design and manufacturer recommendations, and are usually given at a baseline temperature of 20 °C (68 °F), requiring adjustment for ambient conditions.

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