Crusty Leaking Cells Kill Your Tech. Just What’s Going On?

Crusty Leaking Cells Kill Your Tech. Just What’s Going On?

Seasoned Hackaday readers may have noticed over the years, that some of us who toil under the sign of the Jolly Wrencher have a penchant for older tech. After all, what’s not to like in a dirt cheap piece of consumer electronics from decades past that’s just begging for a bit of hardware hacking? For me at the moment this is manifesting itself in a selection of 8mm movie cameras, as I pursue a project that will eventually deliver a decent quality digital film cartridge.

When A Cell Is From West Germany, You Know It’s Old

Crusty Leaking Cells Kill Your Tech. Just What’s Going On?
“Made in West Germany”

The trouble with scouring junk shops for a technology superseded four decades ago is that the cameras I find have in most cases been sitting in a drawer since the early 1980s. They were a valuable item back in the day so of course they were hung on to, then they were forgotten about until one day the grown-ups who were once the kids featured in the home movies are clearing the house, and they start their journey to my bench.

The problem is that very few owners of 8mm cameras had the good sense to remove their batteries before putting them away, so I inevitably end up with a battery compartment full of crusty 1980s Duracells and rusted contacts. This has left me curious, just what has happened here and how can I fix it?

What’s The Leaky Stuff?

Construction of a zinc-manganese "alkaline" cell.
Construction of a zinc-manganese “alkaline” cell. Tympanus, Public domain.

Non-rechargeable cells come in a variety of chemistries, but the commercial ones we’re most familiar with are zinc-carbon “dry cells”, and “Alkaline” zinc-manganese dioxide cells. The zinc-carbon variety are becoming less common here in 2022 and have an acidic zinc chloride or ammonium chloride electrolyte, while the alkaline cells have a higher capacity and a basic potassium hydroxide electrolyte. They both have different failure modes that result in the leaky cells, so it’s worth taking a look at each one.

The failure mode of a zinc-carbon cell is a chemical one, the acidic electrolyte reacts with the zinc can anode, and eventually eats through it. The leaking electrolyte then attacks the surrounding circuitry and battery clips. It’s hardly a concentrated acid, but it’s enough to do plenty of damage over the years.

Meanwhile an alkaline cell has a build-up of hydrogen as it degrades. It incorporates a vent which allows the hydrogen to escape, however the hydrogen pressure can instead force the electrolyte out through this vent. The electrolyte will then corrode the battery terminals and any other electronics it touches. A feature of alkaline cell leakage is a white crust, this is potassium carbonate formed from the reaction between the potassium hydroxide electrolyte and carbon dioxide in the air.

The Global Parts Bin To The Rescue

Fresh and new battery clips for AA holders
Fresh and new battery clips for AA holders

How much damage has been done is usually a function of how long the leaking batteries have been in the device. Sometimes one is lucky and the battery contacts are salvageable, otherwise they are too far gone and a replacement has to be found. A past me tried all sorts of home-made solutions using stiff copper wire and other materials, but today thanks to the miracle of international commerce it’s usually possible to find a contact the same as or very similar to the old one. A quick AliExpress search on terms such as “AA battery spring” will return numerous options, and it’s simply a case then of paging through to find the one you need on the terms you like.

So those of you who like retro tech will find something familiar in the last few paragraphs, but there’s a lesson to be found in dealing with ancient batteries. Here in 2022 we’re more likely to have lithium polymer cells in our consumer devices and so the need to keep a pile of Duracells at hand is reduced. But the thought of today’s equivalent of a Super 8 camera lying forgotten in a drawer for decades with a cheap li-po pouch cell inside it is far more frightening than something with some crusty manganese cells. Have we just found the root cause of house fires in the 2040s?

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