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

A leaky Duracell, "Made In West Germany"
“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The trouble with scouring junk shops for a technology superseded four decades ago is that the cameras I find have in most cases been sitting in a drawer since the early 1980s.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?

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.

Continue reading “One Way To Recharge Alkaline Batteries”

Hacklet 43 – Flashlight Projects

Mankind has always looked for ways to light up the night as they walk around. Fires are great for this, but they aren’t very safe or portable. Even kept safe in a lantern, an open flame is still dangerous – especially around cows.  Enter the flashlight, or torch if you’re from the other side of the pond. Since its invention in 1899, the flashlight has become a vital tool in modern society. From patrolling the dark corners of the city, to reading a book under the covers, flashlights enable us to beat back the night. The last decade or so has seen the everyday flashlight change from incandescent bulbs to LEDs as a light source. Hackers and makers were some of the first people to try out LED flashlights, and they’re still tinkering and improving them today. This weeks Hacklet focuses on some of the best flashlight projects on!

light1We start with [Norman], and the LED Flashlight V2. Norman built a flashlight around a 100 Watt LED. These LEDs used to be quite expensive, but thanks to mass production, they’ve gotten down to around $6 USD or so. Norman mounted his LED a custom aluminum case. At this power level, even LEDs get hot. An extruded aluminum heatsink and fan keeps things cool. Power is from a 6 cell LiPo battery, which powers the LED through a boost converter. It goes without saying that this flashing is incredibly bright. Even if the low-cost LEDs aren’t quite 100 Watts, they still put many automotive headlights to shame! Nice work, [Norman].

light2A tip of the fedora to [Terrence Kayne] and his Grain-Of-Light LED LIGHT. [Terrence] loves LED flashlights, be he wanted one that had a bit of old school elegance. Anyone familiar with LEDs knows CREE is one of the biggest names in the industry. [Terrence] used a CREE XM-L2 emitter for his flashlight. He coupled the LED to a reflector package from Carlco Optics. The power source is an 18650 Lithium cell, which powers a multi-mode LED driver. [Terrence] spent much of his time turning down the wooden shell and aluminum tube frame of the flashlight. His workmanship shows! Our only suggestion would be to go with a lower profile switch. The toggle [Terrence] used would have us constantly checking our pockets to make sure the flashlight hadn’t accidentally been activated.

light3Harbor Freight’s flashlights are a lot like their multimeters: They generally work, but you wouldn’t want to trust your life to them. That wasn’t a problem for [Steel_9] since he needed a strobe/party light. [Steel_9] hacked a $5 “27 LED” light into a stylish strobe light. He started by cutting the power traces running to the LED array. He then added in an adjustable oscillator circuit: two BJTs and a handful of discrete components make up an astable multivibrator. A third transistor switches the LEDs. Switching a load like this with a 2N3906 probably isn’t the most efficient way to do things, but it works, and the magic smoke is still safely inside the semiconductors.  [Steel_9] built the circuit dead bug style, and was able to fit everything inside the original plastic case.  Rave on, [Steel_9]!

If you want to see more flashlight projects, check out our new list on! That’s about all the time we have for this week’s Hacklet. As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of!