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4 Different Types of Electric Batteries for Cars

Lithium ion batteries on plain white table.

All cars have batteries, of course. They couldn’t operate without them. As you’ve probably guessed, though, the batteries in electric cars work differently. For some car owners, the battery itself doesn’t matter.

The fact that the car runs on a battery at all is enough. Other car owners want more information. For instance, what is the best kind of electric car battery? Is there more than one type? Are some more efficient than others?

If you’re in the market for an electric car, the type of battery might play a part in your decision. Below, you’ll see examples of different types of car batteries.

Although they all get the job done, each one works a bit differently from the rest. Here’s what you need to know. 

About Electric Car Batteries 

Electric vehicle charging at EV charging station.

Before we get into the specific types, let’s talk about car batteries in general. The more you know about how electric car batteries work, the easier it will be for you to make an informed decision.

Already know the basics? You can find more specific information below, starting with lithium ion batteries. But if you’re new to the world of electric car batteries, this information can help you get started. 

Electric Car Batteries vs Standard Car Batteries 

Again, both standard cars and electric cars have batteries. The difference is that in a standard car, with an internal combustion engine, the battery is not the main source of power.

The charge from the battery starts the car when the driver turns the key. Once the battery does its job, the gasoline-powered motor steps in and handles the rest. 

In standard cars, the battery can also power certain things while the motor isn’t running. You can turn the car on and use the air conditioner, windows, radio, and other electronic things.

That said, if you drive a standard car, try to avoid using the battery by itself for more than a few minutes. If you use the battery for too long without starting the car, that battery could die quickly, which will leave you stranded the next time you try to start your car. 

Now, in fully electric cars, the battery doesn’t just start the car. It also moves the car forward. 

Electric Car Batteries and Hybrid Vehicles 

When it comes to power, standard engines and electric engines seem simple enough, right? One mostly uses gasoline, and the other only uses batteries. But what about hybrid cars? How do batteries work in those engines? 

Just like standard cars, hybrid vehicles have an internal combustion engine. However, that engine works in tandem with the battery. Hybrid cars can also use battery power when the car idles. 

Some hybrid cars have a fully-electric mode, allowing drivers to switch to electric power alone for a while. Fully electric mode is usually very limited. For example, a hybrid car might run on electric power alone for 25 miles or less. 

While hybrid vehicles do use gasoline, they use a lot less of it than standard cars do. As a result, they’re better for the environment. Since hybrid cars cost a lot less than their fully-electric counterparts, they provide a happy medium for a lot of drivers. 

Auxiliary Batteries for Electric Cars 

Again, a standard car’s battery provides the secondary, or auxiliary, source of power. Electric vehicles have auxiliary batteries, too. This way, a single battery doesn’t have to handle everything.

Just like in a gasoline-powered vehicle, the auxiliary battery in an electric vehicle can handle things like windows, radio, and air conditioning. In some cases, it can also serve as a backup battery in case the primary battery fails. 

Types of Electric Car Batteries 

Electric cars use different types of batteries, depending on the brand. Each type has its pros and cons. In an electric or hybrid car, you can find one of four main battery types: lithium ion, nickel metal hydride, and lead acid. Let’s take a closer look at each type. 

1. Lithium Ion Batteries 

Lithium ion battery on white surface.

Lithium ion batteries are safe and lightweight, making them a popular power source for electric vehicles. Most electric cars on the market today use lithium ion batteries.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve used these batteries before. Smartphones, laptops, and similar electronics rely on lithium ion batteries. A car, of course, requires a much larger version than the small silver discs most of us are used to. 

How Do They Work?

Lithium ion batteries get their name because, well, they’re full of lithium ions. Those ions create the energy that powers the car. That’s the simplest explanation. 

And now for the more complicated version. Picture a simple AA battery, like the kind you’d put in your TV’s remote control. That battery has a positive side and a negative side.

Lithium ion batteries, like AA batteries and most of life’s major decisions, also have a positive and negative side. Before you charge the battery, all of the lithium ions stay on the positive side. Electrons also hang out on the positive side with those lithium ions.

Once you start charging the batteries, both the ions and the electrons move over to the negative side, much like a lot of us did during sophomore year of college.

The ions take the most direct pathway, while the electrons take the scenic route. When they combine, they create lithium. That energy lets you start your car and drive away. 

Advantages and Disadvantages

There’s a reason why lithium ion batteries are so common. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages by far. Overall, they’re simple, reliable batteries that do a great job at what they do. 

We’ve already mentioned that lithium ion batteries are lightweight, but what’s even better is that, compared to their weight, they produce a lot of energy. For electric car owners, this means driving for a long time before needing to recharge.

Some electric vehicles have a very impressive fuel economy thanks to their lithium ion batteries. 

These batteries also have a long life cycle. Granted, with any battery, the more you recharge it, the more it will degrade. However, lithium ion batteries degrade very slowly, so car owners can use them for years. 

The downside is that these batteries – or at least the earliest versions of them – can overheat. Engineers have created modified versions of lithium ion batteries to minimize this issue. These modified batteries sacrifice a bit of energy output, but they also increase safety. 

The other challenge comes from recycling these batteries. Most parts of a lithium ion battery can be recycled, but that process costs a lot of money. 

2. Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries

Venom 7.2V 1600mAh 6-Cell NiMH Battery with Universal Plug (EC3/Deans)

Nickel metal hydride batteries are less common in electric vehicles than lithium ion batteries. A lot of hybrid vehicles use these batteries, though. 

How Do They Work? 

Nickel metal hydride batteries work almost exactly like lithium ion batteries. The only difference is the material that provides the charge. In this case, that material is nickel oxyde-hydroxide.

As it flows from one side of the battery to the other, the chemical reaction creates enough energy to help power the car. 

Advantages and Disadvantages 

Because they’re an older technology than lithium ion batteries, scientists understand more about nickel metal hydride batteries. Humans have been using them longer, so we know how they perform over long stretches of time.

They’re also generally reliable, can withstand a lot of use, and they last much longer than some other types of batteries. 

They do not, however, last longer than lithium ion batteries, and that’s the main disadvantage. They can also generate a lot of heat when used in high-temperature environments. And finally, they’re more expensive than other types. 

Still, they work well with internal combustion engines, which is why so many hybrid vehicles still use them. 

3. Lead Acid Batteries 

ExpertPower 12v 7ah Rechargeable Sealed Lead Acid Battery

Lead acid batteries are less common than other electric vehicle batteries. They are, however, one of the oldest types of car battery, so they were very common before lithium ion batteries gained popularity.

And they still have a place in the electric vehicle market, even if that place isn’t as big as it used to be. Lead acid batteries have existed since the 1880s, and they haven’t changed much since then. 

How Do They Work?

Lead acid batteries sit in a liquid electrolyte solution. Like other batteries, they have a positive and negative side. The big difference, though, is that lead acid batteries don’t create their own charge.

They can only hold onto a charge that they get from another source. In electric cars, they can use that charge to power the car. In standard cars, they help start the engine before the combustion system takes over. 

Advantages and Disadvantages 

There are lots of pros and cons to using an older technology like a lead acid battery. On the one hand, we’ve had more than a century to see how well these batteries work. They’ve proven their safety and reliability, and they’re readily available.

They’re also the cheapest electric car batteries on the market. Since electric vehicles are more expensive than standard vehicles, a cheaper battery can save some money for buyers. 

The downside is that they need more maintenance than other batteries. The liquid solution requires inspection and sometimes replacement. These batteries are also heavier than other batteries, and they take up a lot of space. 

4. Zebra Batteries 

Zebra Battery Pack,Lithium ION,PP+ MC3300, Qty-1, BTRY-MC33-27MA-01 (MC3300, Qty-1 Standard Capacity Battery)

Zebra batteries are a type of molten salt battery. They aren’t as old as lead acid batteries, but they have been around for a while. 

How Do They Work? 

Zebra batteries use the same positive and negative exchange as other batteries. While lithium ion batteries exchange lithium ions, zebra batteries use a sodium ion exchange. These batteries rely on heat to make the transfer. 

Advantages and Disadvantages 

Zebra batteries are nontoxic, and even though they rely on heat, they still perform fairly reliably in cold conditions. They’ve also been around long enough that people understand them very well.

With lithium ion batteries, we still have to wait and see how long they can last and how we can recycle them more cheaply. But with zebra batteries, we have more answers. 

As far as disadvantages go, the fact that they need heat can become inconvenient. Again, they still perform well in cold weather.

However, they can take a bit longer to preheat in low temperatures, which may increase heating costs. It also has to use some of its own power to keep itself warm.