Safely Creating A Li-Ion Pack From Phone Cells

[Glen], at Maker Space Newcastle Upon Tyne, is refreshingly honest. As he puts it, he’s too cheap to buy a proper battery.

He needed a 1AH battery pack to power his quadcopter controller and FPV headset, and since inadequate discharge warnings had led him to damage lithium polymer cells with these devices, he wanted his pack to use lithium-ion cells. His requirements were that the cells be as cheap, lightweight, and small as possible, so to satisfy them he turned to a stack of mobile phone cells. Nokia BL-4U cells could be had for under a pound ($1.46) including delivery, so they certainly satisfied his requirement for cheapness.

It might seem a simple procedure, to put together a battery pack, and in terms of physical wiring it certainly is. But lithium-ion cells are not simply connected together in the way dry cells are, to avoid a significant fire risk they need to have the voltage of each individual cell monitored with a special balanced charger. Thus each cell junction needs to be brought out to another connector to the charger.

[Glen]’s write-up takes the reader through all the requirements of safe lithium-ion pack construction and charging, and is a useful read for any lithium-ion newbies. If nothing else it serves as a useful reminder that mobile phone cells can be surprisingly cheap.

Lithium cells have captured our attention before here at Hackaday. Our recent Hackaday Dictionary piece provides a comprehensive primer, we’ve featured another multi-cell build, and an interesting app note from Maxim for a battery manager chip.

Nanotech Makes Safer Lithium Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries typically contain two electrodes and an electrolyte. Shorting or overcharging the battery makes it generate heat. If the temperature reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the electrolyte can catch fire and explode.

spikesThere have been several attempts to make safer lithium-ion cells, but often these safety measures render them unusable after overheating. Stanford University researchers have a new method to protect from overheating cells that uses–what else–nanotechnology graphene. The trick is a thin film of polyethylene that contains tiny nickel spikes coated with graphene (see electron micrograph to the right).

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Prototype Sodium Ion Batteries in 18650 Cells

French researchers have announced a prototype of an 18650 sodium-ion battery. If you’ve bought a powerful LED flashlight, a rechargeable battery pack, or a–ahem–stronger than usual LASER pointer, you’ve probably run into 18650 batteries. You often find these inside laptop batteries and –famously– the Tesla electric vehicle runs on a few thousand of these cells. The number might seem like a strange choice, but it maps to the cell size (18 mm in diameter and 65 mm long).

The batteries usually use lithium-ion technology. However, lithium isn’t the only possible choice for rechargeable cells. Lithium has a lot of advantages. It has a high working voltage, and it is lightweight. It does, however, have one major disadvantage: it is a relatively rare element. It is possible to make sodium-ion batteries, although there are some design tradeoffs. But sodium is much more abundant than lithium, which makes up about 0.06% of the Earth’s crust compared to sodium’s 2.6%). Better still, sea water is full of sodium chloride (which we call salt) that you can use to create sodium.

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Tiny PIC Clock is Not a Tiny Bomb

It’s been a few weeks since the incident where Ahmed Mohamed, a student, had one of his inventions mistaken for a bomb by his school and the police, despite the device clearly being a clock. We asked for submissions of all of your clock builds to show our support for Ahmed, and the latest one is the tiniest yet but still has all of the features of a full-sized clock (none of which is explosions).

[Markus]’s tiny clock uses a PIC24 which is a small yet powerful chip. The timekeeping is done on an RTCC peripheral, and the clock’s seven segment displays are temporarily lit when the user presses a button. Since the LEDs aren’t on all the time, and the PIC only consumes a few microamps on standby, the clock can go for years on a single charge of the small lithium-ion battery in the back. There’s also a phototransistor which dims the display in the dark, and a white LED which could be used as a small flashlight in a pinch. If these features and the build technique look familiar it’s because of [Markus’] tiny MSP430 clock which he was showing around last year.

Both of his tiny clocks are quite impressive for their size, features, and power consumption. Some of the other clocks we’ve featured recently include robot clocks, clocks for social good, and clocks that are not just clocks (but still won’t explode). We’re suckers for a good clock project here, so keep sending them in!

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Field Expedient Stick Welder from Cordless Tool Battery Packs

The self-proclaimed and actual “smartest idiot on YouTube” is back with another entry from the “don’t try this at home” file. [AvE] recently did a teardown of a new DeWalt cordless drill-driver, and after managing to get everything back together, he was challenged by a viewer to repurpose the 20V battery packs into an impromptu stick welder.

AvE_short[AvE] delivered – sort of. His first attempt was with the two battery packs in parallel for higher current, but he had trouble striking an arc with the 1/8″ rod he was using. A freeze-frame revealed an incredible 160A of short-circuit current and a welding rod approaching the point of turning into plasma. Switching to series mode, [AvE] was able to strike a reasonable arc and eventually lay down a single splattery tack weld, which honestly looks better than some of our MIG welds. Eventually his rig released the blue smoke, and the postmortem teardown of the defunct packs was both entertaining and educational.

While we can’t recommend destroying $100 worth of lithium-ion battery packs for a single tack weld, it’s interesting to see how much power you’re holding in the palm of your hand with one of these cordless drills. We saw a similar technique a few years back in a slightly more sophisticated build; sadly, the YouTube video in that post isn’t active anymore. But you can always stay tuned after the break for the original [AvE] DeWalt teardown, wherein blue smoke of a different nature is released.

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Game Boy with Lithium Batteries and USB

[Alan] procured a few Game Boys from a Yahoo auction with the intent of using them for some other projects, but one of the Game Boys was shipped with a very corroded battery which had eaten up one of the terminals. When [Alan] had repaired it, he was left with a Game Boy with no battery terminal at all, so he decided to splice in some lithium-ion batteries.

Not only does the Game Boy now have a new battery pack, but [Alan] was able to source a USB charger to handle the batteries’ charging needs. However, he realized that his battery pack was 3.7 volts, while the Game Boy only needed 3 volts. To lower the voltage of the battery pack to the required voltage, [Alan] grabbed a 1N4148 diode and put it in series with the battery pack, which also helps prevent any accidental reverse polarity.

This isn’t the most technically advanced Game Boy hack we’ve ever seen but it’s great to see new life breathed into these classic video game systems. Not to mention that [Alan] saved some lithium batteries from the landfill!

A Li-ion Battery Charging Guide

Although [pinomelean’s] Lithium-ion battery guide sounds like the topic is a bit specific, you’ll find a number of rechargeable battery basics discussed at length. Don’t know what a C-rate is? Pfffft. Roll up those sleeves and let’s dive into some theory.

As if you needed a reminder, many lithium battery types are prone to outbursts if mishandled: a proper charging technique is essential. [pinomelean] provides a detailed breakdown of the typical stages involved in a charge cycle and offers some tips on the advantages to lower voltage thresholds before turning his attention to the practical side: designing your own charger circuit from scratch.

The circuit itself is based around a handful of LM324 op-amps, creating a current and voltage-limited power supply. Voltage limits to 4.2V, and current is adjustable: from 160mA to 1600mA. This charger may take a few hours to juice up your batteries, but it does so safely, and [pinomelean’s] step-by-step description of the device helps illustrate exactly how the process works.

[Thanks mansalvo]