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Disposable Battery Types And How They Differ

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I see many deals for batteries on DP and often see comments that lead me to believe that some folks don't see a big difference between heavy duty and, for example, alkalines.  There have recently been deals for zinc-carbon batteries (often marketed as heavy-duty) for around twenty cents a battery for AA or AAA sizes.  While that would be a good sale price for an alkaline battery it's actually a pretty awful price for a zinc-carbon.  

The amount of energy in a battery can be measured by the amperage for which the battery is rated.  A battery that is rated at 2,000 mAh (milli-ampere hours) will last twice as long as a 1000 mAh when used for the same application.  You can think of the amperage as a sort of  "gas tank" for the battery, to use an automobile metaphor.  Carbon-Zinc batteries might have a capacity of 800 mAh while a lithium battery might have a capacity of 3,000 mAh.

There is a great deal more to the physics of batteries than what I am writing about here but I am trying to provide a fairly simplified and readable explanation. For example, the load (what the battery is being used for) can greatly affect the rated capacity.  My apologies to the physical scientist members of DP.

With that in mind, here are some of the most common disposable batteries on the market (rechargeables are a different discussion). 


Carbon-Zinc:  There are similar batteries that have a zinc-chloride composition.  These are often marketed as "heavy duty," "general purpose," or even "extra life."  These batteries predate alkalines and most of the technology revoltuion.   They are ideal for low-drain devices such as clocks, remote controls, and even flashlights if they have a filament bulb are not often used. Modern electronics such as digital cameras, mp3 devices, etc., will go through these batteries at a rate that would make them too expensive in the long run. They are the least expensive of the batteries we are discussing.

Alkaline:  These are the most common batteries on the market (though the carbon-zinc are making a big comeback at dollar stores and, recently, at Walmart).  These batteries are used for all sorts of modern gadgets and provide a longer life than carbon-zinc batteries. Alkaline batteries have a higher energy density than Carbon-Zinc

Lithium:  These are the most expensive of the group we are discussing but in some cases, such as digital cameras, can last four or more times longer than an alkaline battery so the extra cost may not be so bad since you are getting a great deal more use for the battery.  I use them for digital cameras simply not to have to stop and replace batteries when I am doing photography for a political event or at a birthday party.  The convenience has some value.  Lithium batteries have a higher energy density than Carbon-Zinc or alkaline batteries.  

Again, there are many variables that affect how long a battery will last.  But, in general, a lithium will last the longest, then the alkaline, then the zinc-carbon.

erick99 posted Apr 16, 2012

Great explanation. Have you noticed that lithium batteries are becoming a behind-the-counter item like Sudafed, for the same reason as Sudafed? Some places are asking for ID!

fluffy (rep: 2.2k) posted Apr 17, 2012


I use lithiums for my digital camera as I don't like having to change batteries while photographing an event. My girlfriend is very involved in local politics so I frequently photograph various events for Facebook, websites, and the media. Knowing I can take 100 or more shots and not worry about batteries is worthwhile to me. I also think I save money as, while lithium can cost 4x alkalines, they seem to last about six times longer for me.

erick99 (rep: 432k) posted Apr 17, 2012


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williebattery (new user) posted Nov 14, 2012