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Mercury batteries have the advantages of a long shelf life of up to 10 years and steady voltage output. Although these batteries were very common in the mid-20th century, the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act (the Battery Act) passed in 1996 in the United States has largely phased out mercury batteries due to environmental concerns.
Mercury batteries use either pure mercuric oxide or a mixture of mercuric oxide with manganese dioxide as the cathode. Mercury oxide cells are constructed with a zinc anode, a mercury oxide cathode, and potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide as the electrolyte. Since mercuric oxide is a non-conductor, some graphite is mixed with it. This helps prevent the collection of mercury into large droplets. During discharge, zinc oxidizes to zinc oxide, and mercuric oxide gets reduced to elemental mercury. A little extra mercuric oxide is put into the cell to prevent evolution of hydrogen gas at the end of its life.
In a mercury battery, sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide is used as an electrolyte. Sodium hydroxide cells have nearly constant voltage at low discharge currents, making them ideal for hearing aids, calculators, and electronic watches. Potassium hydroxide cells, in turn, provide constant voltage at higher currents, making them suitable for applications requiring current surges, such as photographic cameras with flash and watches with a backlight. Potassium hydroxide cells also have better performance at lower temperatures.
Because of its extremely stable output voltage characteristic, the mercuric oxide battery was widely used as a voltage reference source in electrical measuring instrument. In addition to these the battery were also used in small scatterable satellite mines, radio sets and early satellites. Now a days these battery are becoming obsolete because of its environmental problem associates with mercury. There are mainly two types of mercuric oxide battery – one zinc mercuric oxide battery and two cadmium mercuric oxide battery . Environmental problems are also associated with cadmium. The market of this battery has been occupied by alkaline manganese dioxide, zinc-air, silver oxide and lithium battery .