Batteries are perishable products that start deteriorating right from the moment they leave the factory. There are simple preventive measures that battery users can apply to slow the aging process. This paper provides guidelines to reduce age-related capacity losses and how to prime new and stored batteries.

The recommended storage temperature for most batteries is 15°C (59°F). While lead-acid batteries must always be kept at full charge, nickel and lithium-based chemistries should be stored at 40% state-of-charge (SoC). This level minimizes age-related capacity loss, yet keeps the battery in operating condition even with some self-discharge. While the open terminal voltage of nickel-based batteries cannot be used to determine the SoC accurately, voltage fuel gauging works well for lithium-ion cells. However, differences in the electrochemistry of the electrodes and electrolyte between manufacturers vary the voltage profile slightly. A SoC of 50% reads about 3.8V; 40% is 3.75V. Store lithium-ion at an open terminal voltage of 3.75-3.80V. Allow the battery to rest 90 minutes after charge before taking the voltage reading.

Figure 1 illustrates the recoverable capacity at various storage temperatures and charge levels over one year.

Figure 1: Non-recoverable capacity loss on lithium-ion and nickel-based batteries after storage. High charge levels and elevated temperatures hasten the capacity loss.

Among the lithium-ion family, cobalt has a slight advantage over manganese (spinel) in terms of storage at elevated temperatures. nickel-based batteries are also affected by elevated temperature but to a lesser degree than lithium-ion.

Lithium-ion powers most of today's laptop computers. The battery compartment on many laptops rises to about 45°C (113°F) during operation. The combination of high charge level and elevated ambient temperature presents an unfavorable condition for the battery. This explains the short lifespan of many laptop batteries.

Nickel-metal-hydride can be stored for about three years. The capacity drop that occurs during storage is permanent and cannot be reversed. Cool temperatures and a partial charge slows aging. Nickel-cadmium stores reasonably well. Field test reveled that NiCd batteries stored for five years still performed well after priming cycles. Alkaline and lithium batteries (primary) can be stored for up to 10 years. The capacity loss is minimal.

The sealed lead-acid battery can be stored for up to two years. A periodic topping charge, also referred to as 'refresh charge', is required to prevent the open cell voltage from dropping below 2.10V. (Some lead-acid batteries may allow lower voltage levels.) Insufficient charge induces sulfation, an oxidation layer on the negative plate that inhibits the current flow on charge and discharge. Topping charge and/or cycling may restore some of the capacity losses in the early stages.

Priming new batteries

Manufacturers recommend to trickle charge a nickel-based battery for 24 hours when new and after long storage. This service brings all cells to equal charge level and redistributes the electrolyte to remedy dry spots on the separator brought on by gravitation of the electrolyte. It is advisable to verify the capacity with a battery analyzer before use. This is especially important in critical applications.

Cycling (priming) is recommended to regain lost capacity after a nickel-based battery has been stored for 6 months or longer. A slow charge followed by one or several discharge/charge cycles will do this. The recovery rate is governed by the condition under which the battery was stored. The longer and warmer the storage temperature, the more cycles will be required. The Prime program of the Cadex battery analyzers automatically applies the number of cycles needed to regain full capacity.

Nickel-based batteries are not always fully formed when leaving the factory. Applying several charge/ discharge cycles through normal use or with a battery analyzer completes the forming. The number of cycles needed to attain full capacity differs between cell manufacturers. Quality cells perform to specification after 5-7 cycles. Those lacking formation may need 50 or more cycles to reach acceptable capacity levels.
What is the difference between priming and forming? For the user, both symptoms manifest themselves as insufficient capacity. The difference may be explained in that forming needs to be done only once when the battery is new, while priming must be repeated after each prolonged storage.

Lithium-ion batteries deliver full power after the initial charge. Manufacturers of lithium-ion cells insist that no priming is required. However, priming is beneficial as an initial start and to verify battery performance. Excessive cycling should be avoided because of wear-down effect.

The internal protection circuit of lithium-based batteries is known to cause some problems after a long storage. If the battery is left discharged after use, the self-discharge will further drain the pack and eventually drip the protection circuit at about 2.5 volts per cell. At this point, the charger will no longer recognize the battery and the pack appears dead. Advanced battery analyzers (Cadex) feature the Boost program that activates the protection circuit to enable a recharge. If the cell voltage has fallen below 1.5V/cell and has remained in that state for a few days, a recharge should be avoided for safety reasons.

To reduce the self-discharge on newly manufactured batteries, advanced lithium-ion packs feature a sleep mode that keeps the protection circuit off until activated by a brief charge. Once engaged, the battery remains operational and the advantage of the sleep mode no longer applies.

Lead-acid batteries should be primed by applying a full charge, followed by a discharge and recharge. Verifying the capacity through a discharge is important, especially if the battery is engaged in critical applications such as powering medical devices. Priming is also recommended after storing a battery for six months and longer. Battery analyzers provide the priming service automatically.

It is believed that a partial or full discharge applied once every six months or so enhances the performance of lead-acid batteries. Avoid too many full discharges, as this would wear down the battery unnecessarily.

While capacity loss during a battery's life cannot be eliminated, simple guidelines minimize the effect:

  • Keep batteries in a cool and dry storage area. Refrigeration is recommended but freezers should be avoided. When refrigerated, the battery should be placed in a plastic bag to protect against condensation
  • Do not fully charge lithium and nickel-based batteries before storage. Keep them partially charged and apply a full charge before use. Store lithium-ion at about 40% state-of-charge (3.75-3.80V/cell open terminal). Lead-acid batteries must be stored fully charged.
  • Do not store lithium-ion fully depleted. If empty, charge for about 30 minutes before storage. Self-discharge on a depleted battery may cause the protection circuit to trip, preventing a recharge.
  • Do not stockpile lithium-ion batteries; avoid buying dated stock, even if offered at a reduced price. Observe the manufacturing date, if available.
  • Never leave a nickel-based battery sitting on a charger for more than a few days. Prolonged trickle charge causes crystalline formation (memory).
  • Always store a lead acid battery in full-charge condition. Observe the open terminal voltage and recharge the battery every 6 months or as recommended by the manufacturer.