You may think electrochemistry sounds like an esoteric field where lab-coated scientists labor away over sophisticated instruments and publish papers that only other electrochemists could love. And you’d be right, but only partially, because electrochemistry touches almost everything in modern life. For proof of that look no further than your nearest pocket, assuming that’s where you keep your smartphone and the electrochemical cell that powers it.
Electrochemistry is the study of the electrical properties of chemical reactions and does indeed need sophisticated instrumentation. That doesn’t mean the instruments have to break the grant budget, though, as [Kyle Lopin] shows with this dead-simple potentiostat built with one chip and one capacitor. A potentiostat controls the voltage on an electrode in an electrochemical cell. Such cells have three electrodes — a working electrode, a reference electrode, and a counter electrode. The flow of electrons between these electrodes and through the solutions under study reveal important properties about the reduction and oxidation states of the reaction. Rather than connect his cell to an expensive potentiostat, [Kyle] used a Cypress programmable system-on-chip development board to do everything. All that’s needed is to plug the PSoC into a USB port for programming, connect the electrodes to GPIO pins, and optionally add a 100 nF capacitor to improve the onboard DAC’s accuracy. The video below covers the whole process, albeit with a barely audible voiceover.
To describe the constraints on developing consumer battery technology as ‘challenging’ is an enormous understatement. The ideal rechargeable battery has conflicting properties – it has to store large amounts of energy, safely release or absorb large amounts of it on demand, and must be unable to release that energy upon failure. It also has to be cheap, nontoxic, lightweight, and scalable.
As a result, consumer battery technologies represent a compromise between competing goals. Modern rechargeable lithium batteries are no exception, although overall they are a marvel of engineering. Mobile technology would not be anywhere near as good as it is today without them. We’re not saying you cannot have cellphones based on lead-acid batteries (in fact the Motorola 2600 ‘Bag Phone’ was one), but you had better have large pockets. Also a stout belt or… some type of harness? It turns out lead is heavy.
Rechargeable lithium cells have evolved tremendously over the years since their commercial release in 1991. Early on in their development, small grains plated with lithium metal were used, which had several disadvantages including loss of cell capacity over time, internal short circuits, and fairly high levels of heat generation. To solve these problems, there were two main approaches: the use of polymer electrolytes, and the use of graphite electrodes to contain the lithium ions rather than use lithium metal. From these two approaches, lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium-polymer (Li-Po) cells were developed (Vincent, 2009, p. 163). Since then, many different chemistries have been developed.
You probably know that graphene is a molecular monolayer of carbon atoms linked in hexagonal arrays. Getting to that monolayer is a difficult proposition, but useful bits of graphene can be created by various mechanical and chemical treatments of common graphite. [The Thought Emporium]’s approach to harvesting graphene from graphite is a two-step process starting with electrochemical exfoliation. Strips of thin graphite foil are electrolyzed in a bath of ferrous sulfate, resulting in the graphite delaminating and flaking off into the electrolyte. After filtering and cleaning, the almost graphene is further exfoliated in an ultrasonic cleaner. The result is gram quantity yields with very little work and at low cost.
Copper bus bars are commonly used instead of wire for carrying high currents. [Dane] needed some bus bars for a project, but he was worried about corrosion. His solution was tin electroplating the bus bars to lower the risk of corrosion while keeping the conductivity high.
The process requires only two chemicals: hydrochloric acid and tin. The electrolyte solution is made by dissolving tin into the acid. Then the bus bar is placed in a diluted solution and a 1 A current is run through it. The result is a fine coating of tin on the copper, which will not corrode in water.
[Dane] mentions that he’d like to try the process with silver solder in the future, since it is easier to find than tin. He also wants to find a way to measure the amount of tin deposited onto the bus bars. This process could be helpful for anyone who needs some corrosion resistant high current conductors.
Check out a video of the plating process after the break.