The nickel-cadmium battery (NiCd battery or NiCad battery) is a type of rechargeable battery using nickel oxide hydroxide and metallic cadmium as electrodes. The abbreviation NiCd is derived from the chemical symbols of nickel (Ni) and cadmium (Cd): the abbreviation NiCad is a registered trademark of SAFT Corporation, although this brand name is commonly used to describe all Ni–Cd batteries.

Wet-cell nickel-cadmium batteries were invented in 1899. Among rechargeable battery technologies, NiCd rapidly lost market share in the 1990s, to NiMH and Li-ion batteries; market share dropped by 80%. A NiCd battery has a terminal voltage during discharge of around 1.2 volts which decreases little until nearly the end of discharge. NiCd batteries are made in a wide range of sizes and capacities, from portable sealed types interchangeable with carbon-zinc dry cells, to large ventilated cells used for standby power and motive power. Compared with other types of rechargeable cells they offer good cycle life and performance at low temperatures with a fair capacity but their significant advantage is the ability to deliver practically their full rated capacity at high discharge rates (discharging in one hour or less). However, the materials are more costly than that of the lead acid battery, and the cells have high self-discharge rates.

Sealed NiCd cells were at one time widely used in portable power tools, photography equipment, flashlights, emergency lighting, hobby R/C, and portable electronic devices. The superior capacity of the Nickel-metal hydride batteries, and more recently their lower cost, has largely supplanted their use. Further, the environmental impact of the disposal of the toxic metal cadmium has contributed considerably to the reduction in their use. Within the European Union, NiCd batteries can now only be supplied for replacement purposes or for certain types of new equipment such as medical devices.

Larger ventilated wet cell NiCd batteries are used in emergency lighting, standby power, and uninterruptible power supplies and other applications.

The first Ni-Cd battery was created by Waldemar Jungner of Sweden in 1899. At that time, the only direct competitor was the lead–acid battery, which was less physically and chemically robust. With minor improvements to the first prototypes, energy density rapidly increased to about half of that of primary batteries, and significantly greater than lead–acid batteries. Jungner experimented with substituting iron for the cadmium in varying quantities, but found the iron formulations to be wanting. Jungner's work was largely unknown in the United States. Thomas Edison patented a nickel– or cobalt–cadmium battery in 1902, and adapted the battery design when he introduced the nickel–iron battery to the US two years after Jungner had built one. In 1906, Jungner established a factory close to Oskarshamn, Sweden to produce flooded design Ni–Cd batteries.

In 1932 active materials were deposited inside a porous nickel-plated electrode and fifteen years later began on a sealed nickel-cadmium battery.

The first production in the United States began in 1946. Up to this point, the batteries were "pocket type," constructed of nickel-plated steel pockets containing nickel and cadmium active materials. Around the middle of the twentieth century, sintered-plate Ni-Cd batteries became increasingly popular. Fusing nickel powder at a temperature well below its melting point using high pressures creates sintered plates. The plates thus formed are highly porous, about 80 percent by volume. Positive and negative plates are produced by soaking the nickel plates in nickel- and cadmium-active materials, respectively. Sintered plates are usually much thinner than the pocket type, resulting in greater surface area per volume and higher currents. In general, the greater amount of reactive material surface area in a battery, the lower its internal resistance.

Today, all consumer Ni-Cd batteries use the "Swiss roll" or "jelly-roll" configuration. This design incorporates several layers of positive and negative material rolled into a cylindrical shape. This design reduces internal resistance as there is a greater amount of electrode in contact with the active material in each cell.

A fully charged NiCd cell contains:
  • a nickel(III) oxide-hydroxide positive electrode plate
  • a cadmium negative electrode plate
  • a separator, and
  • an alkaline electrolyte (potassium hydroxide).
NiCd batteries usually have a metal case with a sealing plate equipped with a self-sealing safety valve. The positive and negative electrode plates, isolated from each other by the separator, are rolled in a spiral shape inside the case. This is known as the jelly-roll design and allows a Ni–Cd cell to deliver a much higher maximum current than an equivalent size alkaline cell. Alkaline cells have a bobbin construction where the cell casing is filled with electrolyte and contains a graphite rod which acts as the positive electrode. As a relatively small area of the electrode is in contact with the electrolyte (as opposed to the jelly-roll design), the internal resistance for an equivalent sized alkaline cell is higher which limits the maximum current that can be delivered.

The chemical reactions at the cadmium electrode during discharge are:
{\mathrm  {Cd+2OH^{-}\rightarrow Cd(OH)_{2}+2e^{-}}}

The reactions at the nickel oxide electrode are:
{\mathrm  {2NiO(OH)+2H_{2}O+2e^{-}\rightarrow 2Ni(OH)_{2}+2OH^{-}}}

The net reaction during discharge is
{\mathrm  {2NiO(OH)+Cd+2H_{2}O\rightarrow 2Ni(OH)_{2}+Cd(OH)_{2}.}}

During recharge, the reactions go from right to left. The alkaline electrolyte (commonly KOH) is not consumed in this reaction and therefore its specific gravity, unlike in lead–acid batteries, is not a guide to its state of charge.

When Jungner built the first NiCd batteries, he used nickel oxide in the positive electrode, and iron and cadmium materials in the negative. It was not until later that pure cadmium metal and nickel hydroxide were used. Until about 1960, the chemical reaction was not completely understood. There were several speculations as to the reaction products. The debate was finally resolved by infrared spectroscopy, which revealed cadmium hydroxide and nickel hydroxide.

Another historically important variation on the basic NiCd cell is the addition of lithium hydroxide to the potassium hydroxide electrolyte. This was believed to prolong the service life by making the cell more resistant to electrical abuse. The Ni–Cd battery in its modern form is extremely resistant to electrical abuse anyway, so this practice has been discontinued.

Sealed Ni–Cd cells may be used individually, or assembled into battery packs containing two or more cells. Small cells are used for portable electronics and toys (such as solar garden lights), often using cells manufactured in the same sizes as primary cells. When Ni–Cd batteries are substituted for primary cells, the lower terminal voltage and smaller ampere-hour capacity may reduce performance as compared to primary cells. Miniature button cells are sometimes used in photographic equipment, hand-held lamps (flashlight or torch), computer-memory standby, toys, and novelties.

Specialty Ni–Cd batteries are used in cordless and wireless telephones, emergency lighting, and other applications. With a relatively low internal resistance, they can supply high surge currents. This makes them a favorable choice for remote-controlled electric model airplanes, boats, and cars, as well as cordless power tools and camera flash units.

Larger flooded cells are used for aircraft starting batteries, electric vehicles, and standby power.

Advances in battery-manufacturing technologies throughout the second half of the twentieth century have made batteries increasingly cheaper to produce. Battery-powered devices in general have increased in popularity. As of 2000, about 1.5 billion Ni–Cd batteries were produced annually. Up until the mid-1990s, Ni–Cd batteries had an overwhelming majority of the market share for rechargeable batteries in home electronics.

At one point, Ni–Cd batteries accounted for 8% of all portable secondary (rechargeable) battery sales in the EU, and in the UK for 9.2% (disposal) and in Switzerland for 1.3% of all portable battery sales.

Now, in the EU and under the Battery Directive, sales of Ni–Cd batteries to consumers for portable use has been greatly restricted.

Ni–Cd cells are available in the same sizes as alkaline batteries, from AAA through D, as well as several multi-cell sizes, including the equivalent of a 9 volt battery. A fully charged single Ni–Cd cell, under no load, carries a potential difference of between 1.25 and 1.35 volts, which stays relatively constant as the battery is discharged. Since an alkaline battery near fully discharged may see its voltage drop to as low as 0.9 volts, Ni–Cd cells and alkaline cells are typically interchangeable for most applications.

In addition to single cells, batteries exist that contain up to 300 cells (nominally 360 volts, actual voltage under no load between 380 and 420 volts). This many cells are mostly used in automotive and heavy-duty industrial applications. For portable applications, the number of cells is normally below 18 cells (24 V). Industrial-sized flooded batteries are available with capacities ranging from 12.5 Ah up to several hundred Ah.

Recently, nickel–metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries have become commercially available and cheaper, the former type now rivaling Ni–Cd batteries in cost. Where energy density is important, Ni–Cd batteries are now at a disadvantage compared with nickel–metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries. However, the Ni–Cd battery is still very useful in applications requiring very high discharge rates because it can endure such discharge with no damage or loss of capacity.

When compared to other forms of rechargeable battery, the Ni–Cd battery has a number of distinct advantages:
  • The batteries are more difficult to damage than other batteries, tolerating deep discharge for long periods. In fact, Ni–Cd batteries in long-term storage are typically stored fully discharged. This is in contrast, for example, to lithium ion batteries, which are less stable and will be permanently damaged if discharged below a minimum voltage.
  • The battery performs very well under rough conditions, perfect for use in the portable tools.
  • Ni–Cd batteries typically last longer, in terms of number of charge/discharge cycles, than other rechargeable batteries such as lead/acid batteries.
  • Compared to lead–acid batteries, Ni–Cd batteries have a much higher energy density. A Ni–Cd battery is smaller and lighter than a comparable lead–acid battery, but not a comparable NiMH or Li-ion battery. In cases where size and weight are important considerations (for example, aircraft), Ni–Cd batteries are preferred over the cheaper lead–acid batteries.
  • In consumer applications, Ni–Cd batteries compete directly with alkaline batteries. A Ni–Cd cell has a lower capacity than that of an equivalent alkaline cell, and costs more. However, since the alkaline battery's chemical reaction is not reversible, a reusable Ni–Cd battery has a significantly longer total lifetime. There have been attempts to create rechargeable alkaline batteries, or specialized battery chargers for charging single-use alkaline batteries, but none that has seen wide usage.
  • The terminal voltage of a Ni–Cd battery declines more slowly as it is discharged, compared with carbon–zinc batteries. Since an alkaline battery's voltage drops significantly as the charge drops, most consumer applications are well equipped to deal with the slightly lower Ni–Cd cell voltage with no noticeable loss of performance.
  • The capacity of a Ni–Cd battery is not significantly affected by very high discharge currents. Even with discharge rates as high as 50C, a Ni–Cd battery will provide very nearly its rated capacity. By contrast, a lead acid battery will only provide approximately half its rated capacity when discharged at a relatively modest 1.5C.
  • The maximum continuous current drain of NiCd battery is commonly around 15C. Compared to NiMH battery where usable maximum continuous current drain is not more than 5C.
  • Nickel–metal hydride (NiMH batteries are the newest, and most similar, competitor to Ni–Cd batteries. Compared to Ni–Cd batteries, NiMH batteries have a higher capacity and are less toxic, and are now more cost effective. However, a Ni–Cd battery has a lower self-discharge rate (for example, 20% per month for a Ni–Cd battery, versus 30% per month for a traditional NiMH under identical conditions), although low self-discharge ("LSD") NiMH batteries are now available, which have substantially lower self-discharge than either Ni–Cd or traditional NiMH batteries. This results in a preference for Ni–Cd over non-LSD NiMH batteries in applications where the current draw on the battery is lower than the battery's own self-discharge rate (for example, television remote controls). In both types of cell, the self-discharge rate is highest for a full charge state and drops off somewhat for lower charge states. Finally, a similarly sized Ni–Cd battery has a slightly lower internal resistance, and thus can achieve a higher maximum discharge rate (which can be important for applications such as power tools).
The primary trade-off with Ni–Cd batteries is their higher cost and the use of cadmium. This heavy metal is an environmental hazard, and is highly toxic to all higher forms of life. They are also more costly than lead–acid batteries because nickel and cadmium cost more. One of the biggest disadvantages is that the battery exhibits a very marked negative temperature coefficient. This means that as the cell temperature rises, the internal resistance falls. This can pose considerable charging problems, particularly with the relatively simple charging systems employed for lead–acid type batteries. Whilst lead–acid batteries can be charged by simply connecting a dynamo to them, with a simple electromagnetic cut-out system for when the dynamo is stationary or an over-current occurs, the Ni–Cd battery under a similar charging scheme would exhibit thermal runaway, where the charging current would continue to rise until the over-current cut-out operated or the battery destroyed itself. This is the principal factor that prevents its use as engine-starting batteries. Today with alternator-based charging systems with solid-state regulators, the construction of a suitable charging system would be relatively simple, but the car manufacturers are reluctant to abandon tried-and-tested technology.

Ni–Cd batteries may suffer from a "memory effect" if they are discharged and recharged to the same state of charge hundreds of times. The apparent symptom is that the battery "remembers" the point in its charge cycle where recharging began and during subsequent use suffers a sudden drop in voltage at that point, as if the battery had been discharged. The capacity of the battery is not actually reduced substantially. Some electronics designed to be powered by Ni–Cd batteries are able to withstand this reduced voltage long enough for the voltage to return to normal. However, if the device is unable to operate through this period of decreased voltage, it will be unable to get enough energy out of the battery, and for all practical purposes, the battery appears "dead" earlier than normal.

There is evidence that the memory effect story originated from orbiting satellites, where they were typically charging for twelve hours out of 24 for several years. After this time, it was found that the capacities of the batteries had declined significantly, but were still fit for use. It is unlikely that this precise repetitive charging (for example, 1,000 charges/discharges with less than 2% variability) could ever be reproduced by individuals using electrical goods. The original paper describing the memory effect was written by GE scientists at their Battery Business Department in Gainesville, Florida, and later retracted by them, but the damage was done. It is unlikely to be a real phenomenon, but has taken on a life of its own as an urban myth.

The battery survives thousands of charges/discharges cycles. Also it is possible to lower the memory effect by discharging the battery completely about once a month. This way apparently the battery does not "remember" the point in its charge cycle.

An effect with similar symptoms to the memory effect is the so-called voltage depression or lazy battery effect. This results from repeated overcharging; the symptom is that the battery appears to be fully charged but discharges quickly after only a brief period of operation. In rare cases, much of the lost capacity can be recovered by a few deep-discharge cycles, a function often provided by automatic battery chargers. However, this process may reduce the shelf life of the battery. If treated well, a Ni–Cd battery can last for 1,000 cycles or more before its capacity drops below half its original capacity. Many home chargers claim to be "smart chargers" which will shut down and not damage the battery, but this seems to be a common problem.

Ni–Cd batteries contain between 6% (for industrial batteries) and 18% (for commercial batteries) cadmium, which is a toxic heavy metal and therefore requires special care during battery disposal. In the United States, part of the battery price is a fee for its proper disposal at the end of its service lifetime. Under the so-called "batteries directive" (2006/66/EC), the sale of consumer Ni–Cd batteries has now been banned within the European Union except for medical use; alarm systems; emergency lighting; and portable power tools. This last category has been banned effective 2016. Under the same EU directive, used industrial Ni–Cd batteries must be collected by their producers in order to be recycled in dedicated facilities.

Cadmium, being a heavy metal, can cause substantial pollution when discarded in a landfill or incinerated. Because of this, many countries now operate recycling programs to capture and reprocess old batteries.