Classification of Cells or Batteries


Electrochemical batteries are classified into 4 broad categories.

 A primary cell or battery is one that cannot easily be recharged after one use, and are discarded following discharge. Most primary cells utilize electrolytes that are contained within absorbent material or a separator (i.e. no free or liquid electrolyte), and are thus termed dry cells.

A secondary cell or battery is one that can be electrically recharged after use to their original pre-discharge condition, by passing current through the circuit in the opposite direction to the current during discharge. The following graphic evidences the recharging process.


Secondary batteries fall into two sub-categories depending on their intended applications.


  • Cells that are utilized as energy storage devices, delivering energy on demand. Such cells are typically connected to primary power sources so as to be fully charged on demand. Examples of these type of secondary cells include emergency no-fail and standby power sources, aircraft systems and stationary energy storage systems for load-leveling.


  • Cells that are essentially utilized as primary cells, but are recharged after use rather than being discarded. Examples of these types of secondary cells primarily include portable consumer electronics and electric vehicles.


Primary vs. Secondary A Comparison

The following table summarizes the pros and cons of primary and secondary batteries.



Lower initial cost.

Higher life-cycle cost ($/kWh).



Replacement readily available.



Typically lighter and smaller; thus traditionally more suited for portable applications.


Longer service per charge and good charge retention.


Not ideally suited for heavy load/high discharge rate performance.


Not ideally suited for load-leveling, emergency backup, hybrid battery, and high cost military applications.

 Traditionally limited to specific applications.

Higher initial cost.

Lower life-cycle cost ($/kWh) if charging in convenient and inexpensive.

Regular maintenance required.

Periodic recharging required.

Replacements while available, are not produced in the same sheer numbers as primary batteries. May need to be pre-ordered.


Traditionally less suited for portable applications, although recent advances in Lithium battery technology have lead to the development of smaller/lighter secondary batteries.


Relative to primary battery systems, traditional secondary batteries (particularly aqueous secondary batteries) exhibit inferior charge retention.


Superior high discharge rate performance at heavy loads


Ideally suited for load-leveling, emergency backup, hybrid battery and high cost military applications

The overall inherent versatility of secondary battery systems allows its use and continuing research for a large spectrum of applications.


A third battery category is commonly referred to as the reserve cell. What differentiates the reserve cell from primary and secondary cells in the fact that a key component of the cell is separated from the remaining components, until just prior to activation. The component most often isolated is the electrolyte. This battery structure is commonly observed in thermal batteries, whereby the electrolyte remains inactive in a solid state until the melting point of the electrolyte is reached, allowing for ionic conduction, thus activating the battery.  Reserve batteries effectively eliminate the possibility of self-discharge and minimize chemical deterioration. Most reserve batteries are used only once and then discarded. Reserve batteries are used in timing, temperature and pressure sensitive detonation devices in missiles, torpedoes, and other weapon systems.

Reserve cells are typically classified into the following 4 categories.

  • Water activated batteries.

  • Electrolyte activated batteries.

  • Gas activated batteries.

  • Heat activated batteries.


The fuel cell represents the fourth category of batteries. Fuel cells are similar to batteries except for the fact that that all active materials are not an integral part of the device (as in a battery). In fuel cells, active materials are fed into batteries from an outside source. The fuel cell differs from a battery in that it possesses the capability to produce electrical energy as long as active materials are fed to the electrodes, but stop operating in the absence of such materials. A well-known application of fuel cells has been in cryogenic fuels used in space vehicles. Use of fuel cell technology for terrestrial applications has been slow to develop, although recent advances have generated a revitalized interest in a variety of systems with applications such as utility power, load-leveling, on-site generators and electric vehicles.

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