Disposable yet irreplaceable

Some fire left in primary batteries

By Morand Fachot

Access to power whenever and wherever it is needed is essential. When connection to the grid is not available or in other cases it can only be ensured by batteries. The global share of primary batteries that can only be used once and have to be disposed of when they are discharged is diminishing as their rechargeable counterparts are gaining ground. In spite of this, they are still essential and irreplaceable in countless applications and systems. International Standards for these devices are prepared by IEC TC (Technical Committee) 35: Primary cells and batteries.

Primary batteries come in all shapes and sizes Primary batteries come in all shapes and sizes

Suffering from competition from rechargeable… but not dead

The primary battery industry is significant, but "marked by relatively flat growth" according to TC 35. It made up 23,6% of the global battery market in 2009, although its share is forecast to drop to 17,4% by 2015. This does not reflect actual decline, but a growth of 14,9% in a market that is expected to expand by more than 64% over the period, according to business research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Primary batteries were instrumental in the expansion of portable electronic devices after transistors were invented. They allowed the development of portable radios and other devices later. They continue to meet significant needs and are still irreplaceable in devices that require a small current for a long time, like wristwatches, remote controls, electric keys, smoke detectors, fire alarms and medical implants, such as pacemakers for heart patients. They are also important when charging is impractical or impossible, for instance in military combat missions or rescue operations.

Primary advantages

Most primary batteries are of the dry cell type. They generally have a lower self-discharge rate and higher energy density than their rechargeable counterparts: a lithium battery made for film cameras and military equipment holds more than three times the energy of lithium-ion. Even household alkaline batteries provide 50% more energy than lithium-ion. Most primary batteries are inexpensive, readily available and are also generally environmentally-friendly. They are useful in equipment that is only needed in emergencies and must then work immediately even if it has been stored for an extended period. The need for primary batteries will not disappear so work by IEC TC 35 to improve the devices’ performance remains very important.

TC work supports industry

TC 35 was established in 1950. Its remit is "to prepare international standards for primary cells and batteries, particularly those relating to specifications, dimensions, performance and guidance on safety matters."

Within this scope, TC 35 published the five-part IEC 60086 series that covers physical and electrical specifications, performance tests and dimensions of primary batteries, as well as watch batteries, the safety of lithium batteries and the safety of batteries with an aqueous electrolyte.

These standards are essential for the battery sector and for manufacturers of battery-operated products and equipment. In order to fit such products, the dimensions of batteries, as well as their electrical specifications, have to be standardized. Standards also ensure that the batteries operate safely and reliably.

It should be noted that standards concerning the dimensions of many primary batteries apply to secondary batteries as well. For instance, the IEC R6 or R03 size batteries, which are also known as AA, AAA, penlight or micro, are available in the form of secondary batteries too.

The other main work of TC 35 concerns IEC 62281Safety of primary and secondary lithium cells and batteries during transport, developed with SC (Subcommittee) 21A: Secondary cells and batteries containing alkaline or other non-acid electrolytes, within JMT (Joint Maintenance Team) 18.

New technologies and market trends open prospects

TC 35 notes that "the device market continues to require improved performance from portable power sources in increasingly smaller physical envelopes". It adds: "the increasing and dominant application shares of the R6 and R03 batteries are continuing evidence of this trend". The TC also notes that "market trends for primary batteries often follow trends in devices". 

With the dramatic expansion of mobile entertainment, home and industrial equipment observed in recent decades, the secondary battery market is absorbing the lion's share of growth in the battery market, as most of these devices and appliances use rechargeable batteries. 

New chemistries that include, for instance, the use of a small radioactive source, such as tritium in betavoltaic cells, open new prospects for primary batteries, in particular for nano applications that may require continuous nanowatt/microwatt power for 20 years or more.

Challenges and opportunities for the TC

Observing the technology and market trends, TC 35 aims to address the following challenges:

  • The alignment of standards with transport regulations both of new and spent battery types
  • The alignment of standards with sustainability initiatives worldwide
  • The use of a proper methodology to develop information concerning the respective life cycles of primary and secondary batteries.

It also sees opportunities for primary batteries for essential safety applications, long shelf-life applications and low/high temperature applications.

A busy agenda for the foreseeable future

Although trends indicate relatively flat growth for primary batteries in coming years, the sector is likely to remain important for the foreseeable future. TC 35 showed its intention of playing a significant role in an overall dynamic global battery market when it not only listed the challenges it intended to address, but also stated its plans to "review significant global developments related to portable batteries, both primary and secondary chemistries (…) and to pay close attention to environmental/sustainability developments."

Primary batteries come in all shapes and sizes Primary batteries come in all shapes and sizes
Used in smoke detectors and fire alarms they warn from dangers in buildings and... Used in smoke detectors and fire alarms they warn from dangers in buildings and...
tc-2_tc35_ingenio_pacemaker_lrg ... save lives when used in medical devices (Ingenio pacemaker - Photo: Boston Scientific Corporation)