Old Batteries Yield Thermite and Manganese

Some people collect stamps, some collect coins, some even collect barbed wire. But the aptly named [Plutonium Bunny] is an element collector, as in one who seeks a sample of as many elements on the periodic table as possible. Whatever, we don’t judge – after all, there are more than a few Hackaday readers who collect lots of silicon, right?

So what’s a collector to do when he gets to the 25th place on the periodic table? Easy – harvest manganese from alkaline batteries with a thermite reaction. There’s a surprising amount of manganese in depleted alkaline batteries, which of course are easy to come by in bulk. The chemistry of [Plutonium Bunny]’s process is pretty straightforward and easy to reproduce with common ingredients, but you’ll want to be careful with a few steps – chlorine gas is not something to trifle with. The basic idea is to solubilize and purify the manganese dioxide from the other materials in the battery cathodes, recrystallize it, and mix it with aluminum powder. The aluminum acts as the fuel, the manganese dioxide is the oxidizer, and once the satisfyingly exothermic reaction shown in the video below is over, the collector-grade elemental manganese can be chipped away from the aluminum oxide slag.

So once you’ve got a few manganese nuggets, what can you do with them? Not much really – it turns out the oxides recovered from the battery are far more useful for things like supercapacitors. But it’s still a neat trick.

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One Way to Recharge Alkaline Batteries

It says it right on the side of every alkaline battery – do not attempt to recharge. By which of course the manufacturer means don’t try to force electrons back into the cell. But [Cody] figured he could work around that safety warning chemically, by replacing the guts of an alkaline dry cell.

The batteries in question were certainly old, gnarly looking, and pretty dead – [Cody] barely got a reading on his multimeter. As you can see after the break, he cleaned off the exterior corrosion and did a quick teardown of the dry cells, removing the remains of the zinc anode, now in the form of zinc oxide paste looking very much like what you’d slather on your nose before a day at the beach. He filled the resulting cavity with a putty of zinc dust, freshened up the electrolyte charge with a squirt of 20% potassium hydroxide, sealed up the cell with a little silicone caulking, and put the recycled cell to the test. Result: 1.27 volts. Not too shabby.

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Testing 30 brands of batteries

Batteries come packaged in bright blister packs emblazoned with vague guarantees such as “45% more pictures” and “five times longer lasting.” During his internship at BitBox this summer, [Thomas] decided to put those statements to the test. He tested thirty brands of batteries on a homebrew rig to find the batteries with the most power and the most bang for your buck.

The hardware [Thomas] used an STM32 microcontroller to perform two different tests: a high drain and a low drain condition. For the high drain, 1000 mA were sucked out of the batteries until the voltage reached 0.8 V. For the low drain, 200 mA were used. Data including milliwatt-hours, milliamp-hours, joules, voltage, current, power, and effective load resistance were all logged for both conditions for all 30 batteries.

Generalizing the results for both low and high drain conditions, lithium batteries were better than alkaline, which were both better than zinc AA cells. Perhaps unsurprisingly, batteries marketed as ‘long life’ and ‘extended power’ were the worst batteries for the money, but a brand-name battery – the Kodak Xtralife cells – were actually the best value for the money.