4.3 Charging the Nickel-Metal Hydride Battery
Chargers for NiMH batteries are very similar to those of the NiCd system but the electronics is generally more complex. To begin with, the NiMH produces a very small voltage drop at full charge. This NDV is almost non-existent at charge rates below 0.5C and elevated temperatures. Aging and cell mismatch works further against the already minute voltage delta. The cell mismatch gets worse with age and increased cycle count, which makes the use of the NDV increasingly more difficult.
The NDV of a NiMH charger must respond to a voltage drop of 16mV or less. Increasing the sensitivity of the charger to respond to the small voltage drop often terminates the fast charge by error halfway through the charge cycle. Voltage fluctuations and noise induced by the battery and charger can fool the NDV detection circuit if set too precisely.
The popularity of the NiMH battery has introduced many innovative charging techniques. Most of today’s NiMH fast chargers use a combination of NDV, voltage plateau, rate-of-temperature-increase (dT/dt), temperature threshold and timeout timers. The charger utilizes whatever comes first to terminate the fast-charge.
NiMH batteries which use the NDV method or the thermal cut-off control tend to deliver higher capacities than those charged by less aggressive methods. The gain is approximately 6 percent on a good battery. This capacity increase is due to the brief overcharge to which the battery is exposed. The negative aspect is a shorter cycle life. Rather than expecting 350 to 400 service cycles, this pack may be exhausted with 300 cycles.
Similar to NiCd charge methods, most NiMH fast-chargers work on the rate-of-temperature-increase (dT/dt). A temperature raise of 1°C (1.8°F) per minute is commonly used to terminate the charge. The absolute temperature cut-off is 60°C (140°F). A topping charge of 0.1C is added for about 30 minutes to maximize the charge. The continuous trickle charge that follows keeps the battery in full charge state.
Applying an initial fast charge of 1C works well. Cooling periods of a few minutes are added when certain voltage peaks are reached. The charge then continues at a lower current. When reaching the next charge threshold, the current steps down further. This process is repeated until the battery is fully charged.
Known as ‘step-differential charge’, this charge method works well with NiMH and NiCd batteries. The charge current adjusts to the SoC, allowing high current at the beginning and more moderate current towards the end of charge. This avoids excessive temperature build-up towards the end of the charge cycle when the battery is less capable of accepting charge.
NiMH batteries should be rapid charged rather than slow charged. The amount of trickle charge applied to maintain full charge is especially critical. Because NiMH does not absorb overcharge well, the trickle charge must be set lower than that of the NiCd. The recommended trickle charge for the NiMH battery is a low 0.05C. This is why the original NiCd charger cannot be used to charge NiMH batteries. The lower trickle charge rate is acceptable for the NiCd.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to slow-charge a NiMH battery. At a C-rate of 0.1C and 0.3C, the voltage and temperature profiles fail to exhibit defined characteristics to measure the full charge state accurately and the charger must depend on a timer. Harmful overcharge can occur if a partially or fully charged battery is charged on a charger with a fixed timer. The same occurs if the battery has lost charge acceptance due to age and can only hold 50 percent of charge. A fixed timer that delivers a 100 percent charge each time without regard to the battery condition would ultimately apply too much charge. Overcharge could occur even though the NiMH battery feels cool to the touch.
Some lower-priced chargers may not apply a fully saturated charge. On these economy chargers, the full-charge detection may occur immediately after a given voltage peak is reached or a temperature threshold is detected. These chargers are commonly promoted on the merit of short charge time and moderate price.
Figure 4-2 summarizes the characteristics of the slow charger, quick charger and fast charger. A higher charge current allows better full-charge detection.
Typical charge time Maximum permissible charge temperatures Charge termination method
Slow Charger 0.1C 14h 0°C to 45°C
(32°F to 113°F)
Fixed timer. Subject to overcharge. Remove battery when charged. Quick Charger 0.3-0.5C 4h 10°C to 45°C
(50°F to 113°F)
NDV set to 10mV/cell, uses voltage plateau, absolute temperature and time-out-timer. (At 0.3C, dT/dt fails to raise the temperature sufficiently to terminate the charge.) Fast Charger 1C 1h+ 10°C to 45°C
(50°F to 113°F)
NDV responds to higher settings; uses dT/dt, voltage plateau absolute temperature and time-out-timer