Electric batteries have come a long way since some unknown Parthian first stuck some iron and copper cylinders into a jar of acidic grape juice. The things that power our cameras today, 2,000 years later, work on the same basic principle, though they sure don't look like a clay jar. 

But there is some evidence to suggest that they may possibly have been the first known people to harness the power of electricity too. Central to this theory was the discovery of a ‘battery’ in 1938 by a German archaeologist called Wilhelm Konig.  The battery consists of a little pot, dated 250BC, containing a roll of thin copper surrounding a central iron rod. 

Wilhelm Koenig surmised that with a liquid such as grape juice or vinegar in the pot an electrical current would be created by the potential difference between the iron and copper. It’s not an advanced design by any means, but the idea that electricity could be harnessed like this at all would pre-date the known invention of the electrical cell by almost two thousand years.

The clay has been replaced by plastic, the grape juice has been replaced by an electrolyte gel, and the iron and copper are now lithium, cobalt, or carbon. Pioneer work with the lithium battery began in 1912 under G.N. Lewis but it was not until the early 1970s when the first non-rechargeable lithium batteries were sold. 

Lithium, if you were paying attention in high school chemistry is the lightest of all metals, has the greatest electrochemical potential and provides the largest energy density for weight.   

And it can in the wrong format, the Dark Side, burn, eat stainless and possibly explode.  It is possibly the most dangerous battery.   Here are some facts  I am happy to share with you, as the industry does not tell you all. I have fifty years experience and what I tell you is facts.


👺    AGING  -  All batteries age, it is a fact of life so it is no surprise that lithium-ion batteries also age, most manufacturers remain silent about this issue.  Try very silent, shelf lives of one to two years means they better get sold.  Some capacity deterioration is noticeable after one year, whether the battery is in use or not. The battery frequently fails after two maybe three years with usage.  Subtle, you just don’t know when. And then you find out the replacement costs more than the product it came in. JUST LIKE PRINTER INK...

👺    TEMPERATURE  -  Lithium battery technology got a bad rap in 1991 when one of the old-style solid-metal batteries caught fire. Took out the SONY plant.  The entire plant.  Four fires and explosions, later, the Lithium computer batteries took out the laptops.  Millions upon millions of dollars. One took out a FORD pickup just sitting in the passenger seat being charged.   

👺    NO MEMORY  -  The phrase belongs to older nickel-cadmium (NiCad or Ni-Cd) batteries. This is why manufacturers recommend that you go ahead and plug in your charger when the device gives you its low battery alert or when you are done with a shoot.  Memory problems do not pertain to Lithium. When the Lithium battery starts to weaken it is shot.  But it still can burn, severely.

👺    CHARGE TIMES  -  Battery makers say the first 2 hours of charging takes your battery to 80% of its full capacity. During the next 2 hours, the batteries will trickle-charge slowly to top off.  But since there’s no memory effect, you don’t have to devote 4 hours to topping off the battery with the appropriate charger for the device.  The caveat is the speed of the charger which is not mentioned.

👺    TRAVEL WITH LITHIUM BATTERIES  LIKE CANON BP-511  -  If original packaging (those little plastic coffins) are not available for these spare batteries when traveling,  effectively insulate the battery terminals by using good electrical tape over the contacts, not the cheap gummy fabric type that leaves residue.  Or 3M paint tape, the blue stuff.  

👺    FOR IDIOTS WHO DON’T BELIEVE ME  -  If Lithium contacts internally, you will experience a life changing experience, called a boomer or fire.  If you must carry a battery-powered device in any baggage, package it properly to prevent inadvertent activation. For instance, you should pack a cordless power tool in a protective case, with a trigger lock engaged so  it will not start.  If there is an on-off switch or a safety switch, tape it in the "off" position. Remove the battery and tape it too.   

👺    THERE ARE REASONS FOR ALL THOSE WARNINGS  - Being in the battery business dealing on a daily basis exclusively with photographic packs, cell phone, walkie talkies (police and fire department rebuilds)  UPS, motorcycle and car batteries, we have respect for Lithium.  Customers will get mad at their cellphone batteries and slam them down on our counter.  

Unfortunately one customers hand stopped the fire.  Our counter was OK, it was covered in plate metal and rubber but the battery went up.


👺    NICKEL CADMIUM (Ni-CD)  AAA-AA-C-D - The "Ni-cad" is the oldest rechargeable chemistry and is relatively less expensive then other alternatives. These batteries have proven to be fairly durable and good in cold weather environments and Ni-cad batteries are more likely to take more recycles, charges then their Ni-Mh cousin as along as a consistent recharge cycle is established.  But they are on the .GOV forgetabout it list and replaced by Ni-MH.

👺    NICKEL METAL HYDRIDE (Ni-MH)  AAA-AA-C-D - These batteries were made to be environmentally friendly and with a higher capacity than NI-Cad.  The smoke signals read simple replacement for NI-Cad,  it was praised it as a more powerful battery option BUT,  it produces more internal resistance and its associated heat generation. 

It is this heat production that’s causes some photographic flash units to overheat and is 75% of the problem, and that leads to shutdowns. Heat is what is produced when the battery is be charged or discharged.  Up to the safety threshold of 130 degrees Fahrenheit.  This damages the battery, and the result is the NI-MH gives you less re-charges, and a shorter life cycle.  Metal hydride batteries are not well known for cold weather performance. 

👺    CHEAP - So why the popularity of NiMH?  Simple, it is CHEAP, CHEAP,  CHEAP, good advertising and a profit maker.  It’s currently (pun intended) the cheapest battery to make, least offensive to the environment, lightweight and it works in all the toys like phones, beepers, Walkmans, cell-phones, portable phones, and vibrators.  And now Lithium is becoming even cheaper since the scarcity of nickel and LITHIUM is CHEAP,  CHEAP, CHEAP but more dangerous. Read on, it’s important you know all about the good and the bad about Lithium.

👺    THE TRUTH - LITHIUM ION  (Li-Ion)  -  The Lithium batteries constructed of Lithium - Ion carry warnings about placing in fire. Li-on can ignite if exposed to air and a spark.  In 1995, an entire SONY plant blew up in Japan.  So problems with Li-On are not new to SONY.  Toshiba was also involved. It is reported this foo-pah cost about 430 million dollars which has since doubled.  

👺    NEW LITHIUM - The newest chemistry Li-ION has advantages and disadvantages.  It weighs less and is smaller of the three chemistries and works well in cold weather.  But currently Dell, Panasonic, Toshiba et al, in laptops all have all had recalls on their batteries because they come from the same slave labor plants and start fires when certain conditions exist.  (like using them)  SOME OF WHICH HAVE HAD HORRIBLE CONSEQUENCE.

👺    SPECIALIZED CHARGERS  - Li-ion batteries need more elaborate chargers to control the charge and discharge to each cell so they are consistent.  Longer recharge times so the cells balance themselves and they are a far more complex system usually not repairable and Lithium Ion Batteries are not rebuildable.  These features prevent damage to your Li-ion battery pack.   Never substitute chargers even if the plug fits.   It also suggests longer re-charge times to allow for rebalancing cell to cell differentials and more sophisticated battery chargers. This all adds to the cost and complexity of the design.

  Another factor is the human factor cost in the inherent danger of working in a Lithium plant which is rated along with fireworks.