I think almost everyone has experienced a leaky battery or two in their life, maybe more. At Beau Photo I have seen my share of used and consignment photo equipment be lost to a failed seal on an alkaline battery. Sometimes the patient (camera, flash, radio transmitter, etc.) can be saved, but sometimes in advanced conditions, this type of infection spreads to a circuit board or corrodes the contacts irreparably that it has become terminal and the item must be recycled. I have saved a few electronics from this fate, and even sometimes when I thought there was no hope they were saved from the brink. I will share a few ideas with you on how you might try to rescue battery acid corroded electronics later in this blog.
Cause and Effect
I am no scientist, nor a doctor, though I have been known to dress up like a “MAD” one for Halloween to hand out candy. So I had to turn to the ‘Inter-Web’ to get the facts. In searching, I found most websites contained basically the same information on why alkaline batteries fail. But in this search I stumbled on a very interesting company that produces Zero waste batteries. The Better Battery Co. https://www.betterbattery.co/ . This company co-founded by two sisters shares this information:
“Alkaline batteries generate power through chemical reactions within the battery cell. These reactions create hydrogen gas, which is usually not a problem. If too much gas develops, the battery cell ruptures, releasing the white sticky substance we call battery acid.
Under regular use, an alkaline battery will not leak. Manufacturing defects can cause leakage, but by far, the most common reason for leaky batteries is a lack of use. When batteries sit in unused devices for long periods, hydrogen can build up in the battery cell until the pressure causes the battery’s insulating seals to breach. The gas is harmlessly released, but the rupture also provides an exit point for the battery cell’s chemical components.
What is Battery Acid?
Alkaline battery leakage is potassium hydroxide, and it’s an alkaline, not an acid. So why call it battery acid? The term comes from the sulphuric acid used in lead car batteries, which is much more toxic.
While you need to handle potassium hydroxide with care, the chemical is easy to neutralize, after which you can clean battery corrosion from your devices safely.
So how do you avoid potassium hydroxide leaking from your alkaline batteries?
The short answer is – remove your batteries from your electronics when you store them away, especially for long periods of time. Hard to remember after a full day of photography, I agree but that is the best advice out there. Here are a few more don’ts to add to the list –
• Don’t mix brands. Try to use the same brand of battery in your electronic item.
• Don’t mix alkaline, recyclable, and lithium batteries.
• Don’t install old and new batteries in the same device.
Will this eliminate the possibility of leakage? Maybe not as I have had batteries still in a sealed package from a manufacturer leak over time, but if they are not in your photographic device or other electronics, they can’t affect them.
The Better Battery Company adds this:
“Proper storage is the best way to prevent battery leakage. When batteries are stored loose, they can come into contact with other batteries and metal items, causing power generation within the battery cell that leads to hydrogen build-up. The best way to store batteries is to keep them organized in a box like the Better Battery Company’s subscription box, where each battery is isolated in its own cozy compartment.”
What about other battery types?
Lithium and rechargeable NiMH batteries can also be an alternative to alkaline batteries. Both have their pros and cons. This first con is the cost, both cost more than alkaline batteries. On the pro side, they are less likely to leak but it can happen if they are not treated properly, and if they do, you need to take special precautions, especially with larger lithium rechargeables. With any rechargeable battery, your first step is to make sure that the charger is certified safe by the CSA, C(UL)US or similar testing agency. You can confirm this by looking for a stamp with these agency’s logos, usually on the back of the charger
Too little too late?
If you are coming upon this article too late and you have found one of your electronics has a leaky battery, don’t despair… yet. It might be saved, especially if you caught it early on. Cleaning battery corrosion can be done safely, but you should approach it wisely. Wear rubber or nitrile gloves and eye protection to prevent any contact with potassium hydroxide. You will need cotton swabs or maybe an old toothbrush, (usually the corrosion is deep in a battery chamber so often cotton swabs are better because the toothbrush will not fit), vinegar or lemon juice (I have never tried lemon juice since I prefer to keep lemons for my gin and tonic or Ice tea), and maybe baking soda and steel wool.
You should work in a well-ventilated area. Remove the batteries and recycle them properly. Dip cotton swabs or the toothbrush in vinegar, scrub the corrosion with the swab or toothbrush to remove as much as possible. For the remaining corrosion, mix a small amount of water with baking soda to make a paste. Put this mixture on your swab or toothbrush and scrub again. Wipe away residual baking soda with a moistened cotton swab. In cases where the corrosion on the metal contacts in the device have become pitted and very corroded, I use a small piece of steal wool to bring back the shine and an even contact surface on the contacts. Let the item dry completely before putting in new batteries.
If for some reason the battery leakage does get on your skin, flush the affected area with water.
Bob Hudson, the co-founder of Kerrisdale cameras showed me this many years ago while I worked for a brief while at the Main store. I used it many a time at Beau Photo and at home to save some but not all of the electronics from the recycling bin.