What Is the Difference Between Alkaline & Non-Alkaline Batteries?

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Non-rechargeable, dry cell batteries are categorized in several ways: by letter designations, by voltages and by applications. However, a chemical classification that differentiates dry cell batteries is whether a battery is alkaline or non-alkaline, or, more accurately, whether its electrolyte is a base or an acid. This distinction differentiates both chemically and performance-wise the differences between alkaline and non-alkaline batteries.

Battery Basics

  • A battery is an electrochemical cell where chemical energy is converted into electrical energy. A typical dry cell battery consists of a positively charged anode, a negatively charged cathode and an electrolyte that reacts with the anode and cathode during an electrochemical reaction called an oxidation-reduction reaction.The anode tends to lose electrodes -- is oxidized -- whereas the cathode tends to gain electrons, or is reduced. A surplus of electrons at the negative cathode -- negative battery terminal -- and a deficit of electrons at the positive anode -- positive battery terminal -- creates an electrical pressure called voltage. When a battery is placed in a circuit, electrons flow as current between the cathode and the anode doing useful electrical work. The battery then recharges itself with additional oxidation-reduction reactions until the anode and cathode are eventually chemically depleted, resulting in a dead battery.

Electrolyte Basics

  • An electrolyte is a substance that contains free ions that are electrically conductive. An example of an electrolyte is common table salt consisting of positive charged potassium and negative charged chloride ions. A battery electrolyte is an acid or a base that dissociates into positive and negative charged ions that react with the anode and cathode as a battery undergoes an oxidation-reduction reaction.

Alkaline Battery

  • Chemically, a typical alkaline dry cell battery has a zinc anode and a manganese dioxide cathode. The electrolyte is a non-acidic basic paste. A typical electrolyte used in alkaline batteries is potassium hydroxide. Physically, a typical alkaline battery consists of a steel can packed with manganese dioxide in its outermost internal cathode region and is filled with zinc and the electrolyte within the center-most internal anode region. The electrolyte surrounding the anode mediates the chemical reaction between the anode and the cathode.

Non-Alkaline Battery

  • Chemically, a typical non-alkaline dry cell battery has a zinc anode and a carbon rod/manganese dioxide cathode. The electrolyte is typically an acidic paste. A typical electrolyte used consists of a mixture of ammonium chloride and zinc chloride. Physically, a typical non-alkaline battery is constructed the reverse of an alkaline battery. The zinc container serves as an outer anode whereas the carbon rod/manganese dioxide occupies the inner region as the cathode. The electrolyte is mixed with the cathode and mediates the chemical reaction between the cathode and the anode.

The Better Battery?

  • The overall consensus is that chemically, the alkaline battery has a slight performance edge over a non-alkaline battery. However, non-alkaline batteries are dependable, less expensive and interchangeable with alkaline battery use. Electronic devices that carry a label stating "Use alkaline batteries only" are typically warranted under conditions where a quick, high-current draw is needed from a battery. One example of this would be a flash unit on a camera where a fast recharge is desired.

  • Photo Credit Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images PhotoObjects.net/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images
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