The lead-acid battery is a type of rechargeable battery first invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté. It is the first type of rechargeable battery ever created. Compared to modern rechargeable batteries, lead-acid batteries have relatively low energy density. Despite this, their ability to supply high surge currents means that the cells have a relatively large power-to-weight ratio. These features, along with their low cost, make them attractive for use in motor vehicles to provide the high current required by starter motors.

In this post, Pritish Kumar Halder provides a brief illustration of lead-acid batteries which is a type of rechargeable battery.

In the charged state, the chemical energy of the battery is stored in the potential difference between the pure lead at the negative side and the PbO2 on the positive side, plus the aqueous sulfuric acid. The electrical energy produced by a discharging lead–acid battery can be attributed to the energy released when the strong chemical bonds of water (H2O) molecules are formed from H+ ions of the acid and O2− ions of PbO2. Conversely, during charging, the battery acts as a water-splitting device.



In the discharged state both the positive and negative plates become lead(II) sulfate (PbSO4), and the electrolyte loses much of its dissolved sulfuric acid and becomes primarily water. The discharge process is driven by the pronounced reduction in energy when 2 H+(aq) (hydrated protons) of the acid react with O2− ions of PbO2 to form the strong O-H bonds in H2O (ca. −880 kJ per 18 g of water).[9] This highly exergonic process also compensates for the energetically unfavorable formation of Pb2+(aq) ions or lead sulfate (PbSO4(s)).

Negative plate reaction

Pb(s) + HSO−4(aq) → PbSO4(s) + H+(aq) + 2e−

The release of two conducting electrons gives the lead electrode a negative charge.

As electrons accumulate, they create an electric field which attracts hydrogen ions and repels sulfate ions, leading to a double-layer near the surface. The hydrogen ions screen the charged electrode from the solution which limits further reaction unless charge is allowed to flow out of the electrode.

Positive plate reaction

PbO2(s) + HSO−4(aq) + 3H+(aq) + 2e− → PbSO4(s) + 2H2O(l)

taking advantage of the metallic conductivity of PbO2.

The total reaction can be written as

Pb(s) + PbO2(s) + 2H2SO4(aq) → 2PbSO4(s) + 2H2O(l) Ecell=2.05 V

The net energy released per mol (207 g) of Pb(s) converted to PbSO4(s), is ca. 400 kJ, corresponding to the formation of 36 g of water. The sum of the molecular masses of the reactants is 642.6 g/mol, so theoretically a cell can produce two faradays of charge (192,971 coulombs) from 642.6 g of reactants, or 83.4 ampere hours per kilogram (or 13.9-ampere hours per kilogram for a 12-volt battery) for a 2-volt cell. This comes to 167 watt-hours per kilogram of reactants, but in practice, a lead–acid cell gives only 30–40 watt-hours per kilogram of battery, due to the mass of the water and other constituent parts.


Fully recharged: Lead dioxide positive plate, Lead negative plate, and concentrated aqueous sulfuric acid solution

In the fully charged state, the negative plate consists of lead, and the positive plate is lead dioxide. The electrolyte solution has a higher concentration of aqueous sulfuric acid, which stores most of the chemical energy.

Overcharging with high charging voltages generates oxygen and hydrogen gas by electrolysis of water, which bubbles out and is lost. The design of some types of lead–acid battery allows the electrolyte level to be inspected and topped up with pure water to replace any that has been lost this way.



Internal view of a small lead–acid battery from an electric-start equipped motorcycle

The lead–acid cell can be demonstrated using sheet lead plates for the two electrodes. However, such a construction produces only around one ampere for roughly postcard-sized plates, and for only a few minutes.

Gaston Planté found a way to provide a much larger effective surface area. In Planté’s design, the positive and negative plates were formed of two spirals of lead foil, separated with a sheet of cloth and coiled up.

The cells initially had low capacity, so a slow process of “forming” was required to corrode the lead foils, creating lead dioxide on the plates and roughening them to increase surface area. Initially, this process used electricity from primary batteries; when generators became available after 1870, the cost of producing batteries greatly declined. Planté plates are still used in some stationary applications, where the plates are mechanically grooved to increase their surface area.


Separators between the positive and negative plates prevent short circuit through physical contact, mostly through dendrites (“treeing”), but also through shedding of the active material. Separators allow the flow of ions between the plates of an electrochemical cell to form a closed circuit. Wood, rubber, glass fiber mat, cellulose, and PVC or polyethylene plastic have been used to make separators. Wood was the original choice, but it deteriorates in the acid electrolyte.

An effective separator must possess a number of mechanical properties; such as permeability, porosity, pore size distribution, specific surface area, mechanical design and strength, electrical resistance, ionic conductivity, and chemical compatibility with the electrolyte. In service, the separator must have good resistance to acid and oxidation. The area of the separator must be a little larger than the area of the plates to prevent material shorting between the plates. The separators must remain stable over the battery’s operating temperature range.


Most of the world’s lead–acid batteries are automobile starting, lighting, and ignition (SLI) batteries, with an estimated 320 million units shipped in 1999. In 1992 about 3 million tons of lead were used in the manufacture of batteries.

Wet cell stand-by (stationary) batteries designed for deep discharge are commonly used in large backup power supplies for telephone and computer centres, grid energy storage, and off-grid household electric power systems. Lead–acid batteries are used in emergency lighting and to power sump pumps in case of power failure.

Traction (propulsion) batteries are used in golf carts and other battery electric vehicles. Large lead–acid batteries are also used to power the electric motors in diesel-electric (conventional) submarines when submerged, and are used as emergency power on nuclear submarines as well. Valve-regulated lead–acid batteries cannot spill their electrolyte.

They are used in back-up power supplies for alarm and smaller computer systems (particularly in uninterruptible power supplies; UPS) and for electric scooters, electric wheelchairs, electrified bicycles, marine applications, battery electric vehicles or micro hybrid vehicles, and motorcycles. Many electric forklifts use lead–acid batteries, where the weight is used as part of a counterweight. Lead–acid batteries were used to supply the filament (heater) voltage, with 2 V common in early vacuum tube (valve) radio receivers.

Portable batteries for miners’ cap lamps headlamps typically have two or three cells.