How Batteries Work in Electronic Circuits - dummies

How Batteries Work in Electronic Circuits

By Doug Lowe

The easiest way to provide a voltage source for an electronic circuit is to include a battery. There are plenty of other ways to provide voltage, including AC adapters (which you can plug into the wall) and solar cells (which convert sunlight to voltage). However, batteries remain the most practical source of juice for most electronic circuits.

A battery is a device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy in the form of voltage, which in turn can cause current to flow.

A battery works by immersing two plates made of different metals into a special chemical solution called an electrolyte. The metals react with the electrolyte to produce a flow of charges that accumulate on the negative plate, called the anode. The positive plate, called the cathode, is sucked dry of charges. As a result, a voltage is formed between the two plates.

These plates are connected to external terminals to which you can connect a circuit to cause current to flow.


Batteries come in many different shapes and sizes, but for electronics projects, you need concern yourself only with a few standard types of batteries, all of which are available at any grocery, drug, or department store.


Cylindrical batteries come in four standard sizes: AAA, AA, C, and D. Regardless of the size, these batteries provide 1.5 V each; the only difference between the smaller and larger sizes is that the larger batteries can provide more current.

The cathode, or positive terminal, in a cylindrical battery is the end with the metal bump. The flat metal end is the anode, or negative terminal.

The rectangular battery is a 9 V battery. That little rectangular box actually contains six small cells, each about half the size of a AAA cell. The 1.5 volts produced by each of these small cells combine to create a total of 9 volts.

Here are a few other things you should know about batteries:

  • Besides AAA, AA, C, D, and 9 V batteries, many other battery sizes are available. Most of those batteries are designed for special applications, such as digital cameras, hearing aids, laptop computers, and so on.

  • All batteries contain chemicals that are toxic to you and to the environment. Treat them with care, and dispose of them properly according to your local laws. Don’t just throw them in the trash.

  • You can (and should) use your multimeter to measure the voltage produced by your batteries. Set the multimeter to an appropriate DC voltage range (such as 20 V). Then, touch the red test lead to the positive terminal of the battery and the black test lead to the negative terminal.

    The multimeter will tell you the voltage difference between the negative and positive terminals. For cylindrical batteries (AAA, AA, C, or D) it should be about 1.5 V. For 9 V batteries, it should be about 9 V.

  • Rechargeable batteries cost more than non-rechargeable batteries but last longer because you can recharge them when they go dead.

  • The easiest way to use batteries in an electronic circuit is to use a battery holder, which is a little plastic gadget designed to hold one or more batteries.

  • Wonder why they sell AAA, AA, C, and D cells but not A or B? Actually, A cell and B cell batteries exist. However, those sizes never really caught on.

Check out which tools you’ll need for electronics projects.