How battery chargers work

Sep 28, 2021
How battery chargers work
If you've read our main article on batteries, you'll know all about these portable power plants. An example of what scientists refer to as electrochemistry, they use the power of chemistry to release stored electricity very gradually.

What happens inside a typical battery—like the one in a flashlight? When you click the power switch, you're giving the green light to chemical reactions inside the battery. As the current starts flowing, the cells (power-generating compartments) inside the battery begin to transform themselves in startling but entirely invisible ways. The chemicals from which their components are made begin to rearrange themselves. Inside each cell, chemical reactions take place involving the two electrical terminals (or electrodes) and a chemical known as the electrolyte that separate them. These chemical reactions cause electrons (the tiny particles inside atoms that carry electricity) to pump around the circuit the battery is connected to, providing power to the flashlight. But the cells inside a battery contain only limited supplies of chemicals so the reactions cannot continue indefinitely. Once the chemicals are depleted, the reactions stop, the electrons cease flowing through the outer circuit, the battery is effectively flat—and your lamp goes out.

That's the bad news. The good news is that if you're using a rechargeable battery, you can make the chemical reactions run in reverse using a battery charger. Charging up a battery is the exact opposite of discharging it: where discharging gives out energy, charging takes energy in and stores it by resetting the battery chemicals to how they were originally. In theory, you can charge and discharge a rechargeable battery any number of times; in practice, even rechargeable batteries degrade over time and there eventually comes a point where they're no longer willing to store charge. At that point, you have to recycle them or throw them away.
All battery chargers have one thing in common: they work by feeding an electric current through batteries for a period of time in the hope that the cells inside will hold on to some of the energy passing through them. That's roughly where the similarity between chargers begins and ends!

The cheapest, crudest chargers use either a constant voltage or constant current and apply that to the batteries until you switch them off. Forget, and you'll overcharge the batteries; take the waterproof battery charger off too soon and you won't charge them enough, so they'll run flat more quickly. Better chargers use a much lower, gentler "trickle" charge (maybe 3–5 percent of the battery's maximum rated current) for a much longer period of time.
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