Author Archives: danielfp

Zinc Bromine Batteries: How can we increase the solubility of TBABr?

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most important issue with the use of tetrabutylammoniumbromide (TBABr) in static Zn-Br batteries, is that the solubility of TBABr drops very sharply when zinc bromide is also in solution. While you can prepare 50% w/w solutions of TBABr in distilled water, the max concentration drops to around 0.15M when preparing solutions in the presence of 0.5M of zinc bromide. This is very bad because – in order to function as an effective sequestering agent – we would want the concentration of TBABr to be able to be significantly higher in solution.

Tetra-n-butylammonium bromide - Wikipedia
Graphic representation of the TBABr salt. You can see that the TAB+ cation has a strong aliphatic component

The solubility of TBABr drops because of a sharp increase in the polarity of the solution due to the introduction of the Zn+2 ions, which are small and – due to their double charge – substantially increase the dielectric constant of the medium. The TBA+ cation is actually not that polar, being spherical and with a strong aliphatic component, meaning it cannot very successfully interact with this new, much more polar medium. As a consequence the TBABr drops out of solution.

In order to prevent this from happening, we need to find solutions that either make the Zn cation less polar or make the media less polar by introducing a less polar additive that can compensate for the increase in polarity brought by the Zn cation. These two potential solutions however, need to avoid the TBABr3 becoming soluble as the perbromide needs to remain insoluble for the battery to work as designed (create an insoluble perbromide to prevent self-discharge).

To make the solvent less polar by adding something else, we need to consider our potential choices and their polarity. We could add another solvent that doesn’t react with perbromide, like an alcohol, but we would need to be very careful with the amount to ensure that it does not make the perbromide soluble (since we know TBABr3 is slightly soluble in alcohols (see here)). We could also decrease the polarity by adding a polymer – like PEG 200 – which also has the benefit of decreasing the formation of dendrites in the Zinc anode. Both of these solutions are potential avenues for experimentation.

Zn(II)-EDTA | Dojindo
The EDTA complex formed between EDTA and Zinc ions

To decrease the polarity by masking the Zinc ion we can use a chelating agent that can react with the Zinc in order to reduce its effect on the dielectric constant of the medium. We could do this by replacing ZnBr2 with ZnEDTANa2 which replace bromides by the Zn(EDTA)-2 complex and requires the addition of two sodium ions, which are bound to be significantly less polar than the Zn+2 cation. However this would imply we would have less bromide available, so it might require the addition of NaBr to recover the equivalent moles of bromide we have lost. Alternatively we can also just add NaH2EDTA2 but we would require to make pH adjustments to the electrolyte, which is not something we would like to do. Additionally, the ZnEDTANa2 reagent is cheap and easily available – as it’s used as a fertilizer in agriculture – and the NaBr is also really low cost. This solution decreases the specific energy/power of the battery though, as the weight is increased by the use of additional reagents.

So there you have it, three potential experiments to try to make TBABr a viable sequestering agent for high energy/power density Zn-Br static batteries. Will they work? I plan to test them out one by one!

Zinc Bromine Batteries: Is TBABr the best complexing agent?

Secondary Zn-Br batteries suffer from a huge problem of self-discharge due to the formation of elemental Bromine which, although largely insoluble in water, is soluble enough to migrate through the cell and react with the zinc anode, effectively self-discharging the cell.

To circumvent this issue, researchers have used chemicals that sequester the produced bromine into a product that has even less affinity for water — an insoluble or immiscible perbromide. In flow batteries this is done to generate a liquid phase that is immiscible with water, since it still needs to be a liquid to allow proper flow of the reagent. In static batteries this is undesirable, because a liquid is still able to flow through the cell and react with the Zn anode.

This is a figure taken from the Chinese paper. You can see that they do test the TBABr for its perbromide’s solubility

The 2020 Chinese paper we’ve discussed previously in this blog goes around this problem by using a sequestering agent that forms an insoluble perbromide, tetrapropylammonium bromide (TPABr). Notably the paper uses TPABr instead of tetrabutylammonium bromide (TBABr) which is almost an order of magnitude cheaper due to its significantly wider array of industrial uses compared to TPABr. Not only that, but the TBABr perbromide is even more insoluble, so the chemistry should be even better, right?

It is worth noting that they are aware of the above facts. You can see this in the image above – taken from the supporting information of the paper – where they clearly show TBABr forms an insoluble perbromide. So why did they choose to go with a significantly more expensive chemical (TPABr) and not use TBABr when its the obvious choice from a practical standpoint?

Precipitation of TBABr from a completely transparent TBABr 1M solution when in contact with a 0.5M Zinc Bromide solution

The problem – which I have lived through experimentally – is that the solubility of TBABr in the presence of ZnBr2 is quite terrible. The TBABr is extremely soluble in water – you can easily prepare a 50% solution by weight in distilled water – but it precipitates back very aggressively when put it into contact with a solution of zinc bromide. The image above shows you what happens when you mix a 1M solution of TBABr with a 0.5M solution of ZnBr2. The authors of the paper probably saw this issue and immediately recognized this as a potential problem for their batteries, my intuition is that they did run and have results for some cells using TBABr, but the results were probably so much worse than those of TPABr, due to this solubility issue, that they simply did not publish them.

The TPABr is most probably a significantly better sequestering agent because it’s likely significantly more soluble than TPABr in Zinc Bromide solutions. This agent is however unlikely to be soluble enough to support very large capacity solutions (>= 2M ZnBr2).

As I mentioned on a previous post, a better sequestering agent must allow for large solubility, be commercially available and form an insoluble perbromide. The only candidate I can think of to fulfill this role would be trimethylphenylammonium bromide (TMPhABr). I might be tempted enough to test it to order some from Alibaba if I can get a low quantity order for a reasonable price!

Zinc Bromine Batteries: Initial thoughts about a practical battery

During this past week I have been experimenting and thinking more about Zn-Br batteries and how a real practical battery would look like (how it would be built and what its characteristics would be like). Let’s imagine we have found a complexing agent that can be used in highly concentrated ZnBr2 solutions. What would a prototype battery look like and how much would it cost?

The first thing we need to consider is the geometry to build such a battery. Single-cell batteries for Zn-Br chemistry are impractical due to the limits that would impose on current density – and it’s not the 19th century – so the ideal battery would probably follow a configuration similar to modern lead-acid batteries, where multiple cells are put together to achieve better results. The simplest way to do this is to stack materials next to each other within a box, then flood the box with the desired electrolyte solution.

Proposed stacking of layers for a battery built in a 101x54x55mm project box. Note that the cells are laid horizontally (left to right) . Fiberglass separator thickness should be increased so all contents fit tightly inside the box.

In a 101mm x 54mm x 44mm project box you could fit a volume of around 237mL. If we decide to use a very porous carbon felt electrode – which I have experience with – with titanium current collectors, glass fiber separators and zinc anodes, we would create a cell configuration like the one showed above. This would occupy the entire cell with either separator, current collector, anode or cathode material. Given that the materials used take little real volume, as they are either very porous or very thin, I’m going to assume the solution volume we will fit will be equal to 200mL, which is realistic given the characteristics of the materials.

If we use a 2M ZnBr2 solution, this would give a maximum theoretical energy of 40Wh. If the cells are all connected in parallel, this would give us a battery with a voltage of 1.85 at a capacity of 21.6 Ah. The battery would be charged at a constant current of around 2.85A, although depending on the actual kinetics this might need to go down to even 285mA. In the above design you actually have only 6 cells that are each equal to 2 normal cells connected in parallel – as they share a current collector in the cathode – so connecting these 6 in series would give you a voltage of 11.1V with an expected charging current of 475mA.

The main caveat of the above design is that it uses a 2M ZnBr2 solution, assuming we can find a complexing agent that forms an insoluble perbromide that can be in the initial formulation at a concentration equal to at least the same as the ZnBr2 then this should be no problem. After a lot of research about the solubility of perbromides and organic ammonium salts I believe this might be possible using trimethylphenylammonium bromide, but such a complexing agent has never been tried! The 200 mL of solution used here would use 90.07g of ZnBr2 and 86.45g of TMPB.

Note that this configuration would certainly not work without a complexing agent that precipitates the tribromide formed. Without it the bromine would pool at the bottom and discharge the cell – in a horizontal configuration – or just sink and discharge the cell in a vertical configuration.

Cost (USD)ItemURL
3Project box
45Carbon felt
10.99Fiberglass tissue
11.49High purity Zn
9.01Zinc BromidePrice with shipping confirmed from Alibaba vendor
19.99Titanium foil
18.85TMPBPrice with shipping confirmed from Alibaba vendor
Potential materials used to construct a prototype Zn-Br cell

Using all the materials above, the cost of building such a prototype would be in the order of probably 120 USD. Probably around 200 USD after you add shipping for everything. In reality this cell is also unlikely to yield 40Wh and will most likely be in the vicinity of 20Wh if everything works as expected.

It is also important to note that an ABS project box like the one above is a risky first-choice, given that ABS can adversely react with elemental bromine, so a PTFE project box would – although much more expensive – be a safer choice for a prototype. By the time I build something like this, I hope I have already established that TMPB forms insoluble enough perbromide salts under my much more controlled Swagelok cell conditions.

Note that I am still far away from executing something like this! Currently I am even far away from testing a TMPB cell, but I wanted to write this blog post to condense all this theoretical research and serve as a referring point for me or others in the future.

Zinc Bromine Batteries: Can they really be that good?

In my quest to study Zinc-Bromine batteries, I have been diving deep into this 2020 paper published by Chinese researchers, which shows how Zn-Br technology can achieve impressive efficiencies and specific power/capacity values, even rivaling lithium ion technologies. I’ve found some important things when studying this paper, that I think anyone looking into this technology should be aware of.

An example of specific capacity values for different cells measured by the Chinese researchers.

First, let’s talk about the specific capacity values found within this paper. Usually the cells in the study would be charged to a specific capacity of around 500 mAh/g, with Coulombic efficiencies greater than 99% in some cases. The cell used has a diameter of 0.5 inches – which gives us an area of around 1.29032 cm^2 for the electrodes – with the capacity per area at 1.5 mAh/cm^2. This is pretty amazing, because it means we are getting 1.5 mAh out of 3 mg of active material. Wait, what?

The researchers are pretty clear in mentioning that they calculate the specific capacity values given the weight of the cathode but, what they fail to mention explicitly, is that this is not the weight of the entire cathode material but merely the conductive active material within the cathode, which has a carbon loading of 3mg per cathode piece. The real cathode does not weight 3mg, it weights significantly more – probably an order of magnitude more – given that the cathode is prepared using a binder in an 8:1:1 proportion with the carbon sources. This also does not count the weight of the electrolyte or the weight of the anode.

Granted, the above approach is not uncommon in battery research – reporting only capacity values of active materials – but in this case, in the real world, it’s not like you’re going to be getting 250 mAh/g of battery, you’re likely going to be getting a lot less. In the case of the specific power/energy values the researchers take into account the mass of electrolyte and complexing agent (ZnBr2 and TPAB) but they do not account for the mass of the separator, anode, or other materials.

Specific power/energy values published on the paper

The unfair and potentially misleading part about this is that they are comparing a very partial weight of their Zn-Br system, with the actual values for specific energy and power that have been measured for actual production Li-ion systems. We know of commercial Li-ion systems with specific energy values of 150-250 Wh/kg where that is delivered per actual kilogram of actual battery (including packaging and everything else).

Realistically a Zn-Br fully built battery is likely to have a specific energy way lower than what is published in this paper. So – not very surprisingly – realistic battery systems built with this technology will likely have an energy and power more on the low end of what current Li-ion technology has to offer, although they are bound to be superior to current Zn-Br flow battery designs.

The paper and Zn-Br technology are still extremely interesting – at least to me – because of the high efficiencies, way lower discharge rates, higher specific energy/capacities and other advantageous properties over traditional Zn-Br flow batteries, but they are unlikely to be a game-changer in the energy industry. As most of the time, researchers want to make their numbers look as good as they can within the general practices of the field and battery research is not the exception. I’m not saying that the researchers are being unethical or lying, just that the reader must be aware of how researchers report these numbers and how they compare to what you actually get in final products.

With that said, the confusion from how specific capacity/energy/power are measured in battery research is not without controversy. With some important efforts going on (see here) to try to create clearer standards within the field to avoid confusion.

Zinc Bromine Batteries: Think about the electrodes!

In order to study the chemistry of Zinc-Bromine batteries I have been using a swagelok cell that I bought from China that has a central Teflon body with stainless steel electrodes. This has been problematic due to the reactivity of these electrodes with the elemental bromine and tribromide salts produced in the battery, requiring the use of some “improvisation” in order to make the batteries work.

Charge/Discharge curve of a Zn-Br battery built using a zinc anode, carbon felt cathode, fiber glass separator and 0.5M ZnBr2+ 0.2 TBAB electrolyte in a swagelok cell with stainless steel electrodes covered with conductive HDPE.

To be able to generate the necessary chemical reactions without interference from the stainless steel I have coated the electrodes with some conductive HDPE I have, which has a relatively high volume resistance of around 10K ohm. The charge/discharge curve above shows you the type of measurements I have been able to achieve with this setup, with the above curve having a Coulombic efficiency of 88%.

This is lower than what I could achieve with the copper anode I was using previously (which gave me around 96%), but note how the charging voltage is lower and the discharge voltage higher, meaning that the overall energy efficiency is significantly better (around double). This is however not because of the zinc anode, but because with the conductive HDPE now covering both electrodes, I have now been able to tighten the cell more and achieve a lower overall internal resistance.

However the still relative low energy efficiency and voltage drop when going from charge to discharge are still pointing to significant sources of efficiency loss, possibly from the 10K ohm resistance that the conductive HDPE is giving. The weird shapes at the beginning and end of the discharge curve are also pointing to more than one chemical reaction happening, probably because the electrodes are still somehow interfering with the chemistry (maybe some micro holes in the conductive HDPE at points of stress are exposing the electrodes underneath). For this reason I have decided to get graphite electrodes for the Swagelok cell, which I will build from these 0.5 inch diameter graphite rods I found.

I am also going to change the current carbon felt cathode for carbon paper electrodes – which are on the way – but I will refrain from using the paper until I can perform some tests using actual graphite electrodes that are guaranteed to be free of any pesky side reactions, with way less resistance than this conductive HDPE.

Zinc Bromine Batteries: Current battery and experiments to follow

This week I published a post about my first success in the making of a Zinc Bromine battery, this first battery had a Coulombic efficiency of at least 96% and was able to show the expected charge/discharge curves, which I hadn’t been able to see before. In this post I want to talk about some of the problems I have found and the experiments that will follow to attempt to fix them.

Current structure of my battery. The cell also includes around 80-100uL of a 0.5M ZnBr2+0.2M TBAB solution.

The structure of my current battery is shown above. The first problem I have run into are side reactions due to my use of copper tape as the anode used for zinc plating in the batteries. When I discharge the battery I seem to inevitably get some Cu oxidized and into solution, which is affecting the chemistry of the battery as a function of time. This means that I am losing a lot of coulombic efficiency and my charge/discharge curves are starting to show unwanted side reactions. I will be trying to replace this copper tape anode with a conductive HDPE covering plus a zinc anode to prevent any of these side effects.

The second problem comes from the use of a conductive carbon felt cathode that is pretty heavy (500mg per electrode used in the Swagelok cell) which means that my specific capacity is currently in the 0.5-1 mAh/g of cathode material, when ideally I should be seeing specific capacities in the order of 100-500mAh/g. The battery is already very efficient at using the electrolyte though as the maximum theoretical capacity of it is in the 0.01mAh/uL, given how much zinc and TBAB there is inside of it.

I have ordered an assortment of carbon paper materials (see it here) so that I can test whether these will offer me equivalent power storage with a significantly lower mass. I also ordered the MGL 190 carbon paper (see here) which seems especially promising given that I will be able to build a cathode weighing just 11mg for this area. This should allow me to reach much higher specific capacities if I’m able to sustain the same total capacity for the cell.

When I fully open the cells after going through a full charge cycle I do not observe any accumulation of yellow TBAB tribromide within the interior of the carbon felt electrode. This is telling me that whatever storage is happening is probably only going on within the first few microns of the cathode materials, meaning most of the cathode materials is actually being wasted and not being used for charge storage.

This is the new battery structure I’ll be moving to this week after I get the zinc anode and carbon paper materials.

Another problem with the carbon felt is that it has a lot of “loose hairs” that “sneak” into the porous fiberglass separator and cause shorts between the anode and cathode unless I use 4-6 layers of fiberglass I use (which is sadly pretty porous). This substantially increases the internal resistance of the battery and the hairs, although shorting the battery to a much lesser degree, may still be causing an incredible amount of self-discharge given that they do provide significantly shorter paths between the battery anode and cathode materials.

Getting rid of all copper, changing to a zinc anode, covering both anode and cathode with conductive HDPE and changing from a carbon felt cathode to a carbon paper cathode may all be moves that should help me greatly increase the performance of this battery. Stay posted for some further updates!

Zinc Bromine Batteries: First success!

In my first article about zinc-bromine batteries I discussed why these batteries are gaining interest and how some recent articles point to their potential use as reliable and cheap batteries, especially for large scale applications. After building my own DIY potentiostat/galvanostat, I wanted to use this technology to characterize home-made zinc-bromine batteries and experiment with their chemistry.

One of my initial attempts at a Zn-Bromine battery using carbon felt electrodes as both anode and cathode. Trying to charge the battery at 1mA/cm^2 never got above 1.32V and potential declined after time.

My previous article also mentioned some of my first attempts at building these batteries, which were mostly failed attempts due to the complexity of the battery builds. Even though I was able charge the batteries a little bit – and obtained relatively high Coulombic efficiencies when injecting a small amount of charge – I was never able to sustain potential values close to the expected 1.6-1.8V of the zinc bromine system. Always topping up at around 1.3-1.35V as shown in the image above, when trying to inject charges at 1mA/cm^2.

A huge problem of my first set of designs was a complete inability to adequately reproduce my batteries. The electrode construction was very complicated and every battery I tried had slightly different geometry and different amounts of electrolyte within their construction. In order to standardize the study I decided to change to a Swagelok cell construction (which I bought from China here). I bought a cell and got it delivered to the US within one week.

Button Cell Swagelok-Type Cell for Cell Testing
These are the Swagelok cells I am using to build my batteries now. These cells have an inner diameter of half an inch.

Although the Swagelok were supposed to make things easier, I started to face issues with the electrode material of the cells being reactive towards the bromine generated within the battery charging process. In my initial attempts using a carbon felt electrodes and a fiberglass separator, the stainless steel electrodes in the cell – which are inevitably exposed to the solution – were getting corroded away by the generated bromine and tribromine salts.

I was finally able to surmount these issues by covering the Swagelok cell electrode pieces with conductive HDPE, basically by wrapping the electrode with it and then inserting it within the Swagelok cell. Using this method I was able to produce my first successful Zn-Br cell using a tetrabutylammonium bromide (TBAB)/ZnBr2 solution (0.25 and 0.5M respectively) , a copper electrode for zinc reduction a fiber-glass separator and a carbon felt electrode for the tribromide depositing.

Charge/discharge curve of my first successful cell. I charged the cell to 500uAh and then discharged it until it reached 0.5V. This process was carried out at 1mA.

The image above shows you my first successful charge/discharge curve. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only example available online for experimental data of a TBAB/ZnBr2 cell. The Coulombic efficiency of the above cell was 96%, which is great considering this is the first successful one I have built. The cell used around 80-100uL of solution and 4 layers of fiber-glass separator (see my previous post for links to these materials).

I am still facing some issues related with the cutting of the separator/electrode materials to place within the cell (I have bought a 0.5 inch cutter which should make this way easier) and I am also going to try using a zinc electrode for the zinc plating, which should make things easier. I also want to see if I can get a better non-reactive conductive coating for the cell electrodes, since the conductive HDPE I am using has a quite significant resistance. Things are looking up though!

Zinc Bromine Batteries: A view and way forward

Zinc bromine batteries are a very interesting battery chemistry that goes back at least a hundred years (see here). These batteries are quite especial in that the battery is assembled in a completely discharged state, where both electrodes in the battery are relatively inert and all the charging of the battery is done by reducing/oxidizing materials in the liquid electrolyte into the electrodes. These batteries have the potential of high capacities with the use of very cheap materials, while having a safety profile significantly better than that of regular lead acid or lithium ion.

The battery reduces (plates) zinc into the negative electrode of the battery and oxidizes bromide to elemental bromine in the positive electrode of the battery. These reactions allow the battery to have a relatively high theoretical potential but also implies that you get elemental bromine – a highly reactive liquid – in the anode of the battery. This is one of the main complications and reasons why these batteries have never been very successful in commercial applications. The bromine is not entirely insoluble in the electrolyte – which is generally water – and can therefore migrate to the negative telectrode to react with the zinc, causing a self-discharging of the battery that is extremely detrimental to long term storage in these systems.

The minimum architecture Zn-Br battery built by Princeton

The above is why these systems have mostly been exploited as flow-batteries, because if you can take the bromine produced and just move it away from the zinc deposit, you can effectively ensure that the battery charge is preserved as a function of time. This inevitably complicates battery construction substantially, but does allow for some practical applications of the technology.

During the past few years there has been a renewed interest in this technology, first due to some Princeton articles that talked about these batteries in the context of a “minimum architecture” battery (see here) but this actually just reproduced some of the earlier results of this technology and does not provide substantial solutions to the problems associated with self-discharge in these systems. They however point to the fact that these problems can actually be relatively inconsequential if the batteries are used for mass storage and the actual time the energy needs to be stored for is low. The fact of the matter is that the self-discharge reaction in these batteries is not destructive for the battery, just a waste of energy, contrary to other battery chemistries where self-discharge can generate problematic issues that kill the batteries themselves. The point being, if you need to store the energy for a short time and you can waste some, this is your chemistry.

However some people realized that the problem of self-discharge could be reduced substantially by using some substances that capture the Bromine produced into insoluble tribromide salts. This is what some smart people from China did (see here) using TPA (tetrapropylammonium bromide). The introduction of this chemical into the battery chemistry allows tetrapropylammonium tribromide to form in the positive electrode of the battery – instead of liquid bromine – which substantially prevents the reaction with the zinc on the other electrode as these salt is significantly more insoluble than the bromine.

Some results of the Chinese paper mentioned above, which was published in July 2020.

The image above, which contains some of the results in their paper, shows that Zn-Br technology, when used in this manner, has the potential to have specific energy and power values that can rival even modern lithium ion technology. Furthermore, the cost of all of the materials involved here is relatively low, although these Chinese experiments did use a fancier carbon electron for their positive electrode.

Looking at what the Chinese did, I wondered if it would be possible to create a battery that reproduces their results, with some materials I could find online. I found a carbon felt from ceramaterials with high conductivity and surface area, you can buy an A4 sized sample for less than 50 USD and coupled this with some conductive HDPE, a copper mesh and copper tape. Since zinc can be plated onto carbon felt as well (see here) I decided to go with a construction mechanism where both of my battery electrodes will be constructed from the same material. For the separator I decided to go with a fiberglass separator, the best one I could find for the purpose was this tissue. In order to enclose the battery I decided to go with some shrink tubing, since I could easily seal the ends with a little bit of heat.

You can see my fully assembled 1 cm squared electrodes. I left a bit uncovered on the one to the left so that you can see all the layers.

The electrodes are made by heat pressing HDPE to the carbon felt using a regular iron (with some wax paper to prevent it from sticking to the iron) then heat pressing the copper mesh onto the HDPE, then putting the copper tape on the mesh and finally pressing another layer of HDPE to seal all the components in. The resistance measured between the copper and the felt in these electrodes should be lower than 1 ohm, meaning you should be easily able to measure continuity between them.

To build a battery two of these electrodes are put together with 4 layers of the fiber glass between them – it’s pretty large pore so using 1 or 2 layers often caused shorting issues between the carbon felt electrodes – and then placing that inside the shrink tubing. I then sealed the sides of the tubing using a regular iron to ensure everything was enclosed.

The next step is to prepare the solution, for which I used a class A 10mL volumetric flask and prepared a 0.5M solution of Zinc Bromide and tetrabutylammonium bromide (TBAB). Notice that I used tetrabutyl, not tetrapropyl, since this is more readily available. Both of these substances were bought on ebay or amazon, although they are more expensive than they would if you bought them in bulk quantities. The solution is then injected into the tubing using a needle and the hole is then sealed using regular electrical tape (usually I open to holes to allow air to go out of one). The above solution had some solubility problems (the TBAB wouldn’t go into solution at this concentration) so some of my future experiments will test out different concentrations.

Finished battery
Cross-section of a battery cut through the middle after assembly

I have already started testing some of these batteries and look forward to sharing some of their actual electrochemical results within a future post. As a sneak peak I can tell you that the coulombic efficiency of these cells is greater than 92%. But you will see much more, including charge/discharge curves and other tests, really soon!

Building a DIY opensource USB potentiostat/galvanostat: Part Three

Through the past month, I have been trying to build an open source potetionstat/galvanostat as described in a research paper (see here). Knowing that the probability of failure trying to manually solder such small components was high, I ordered some fully assembled PCBs from PCBway one month ago to make sure I had a plan B in case my manual attempts failed.

This is the Chinese made potentiostat-galvanostat board built by PCBway using the files I provided (which are files obtained/modified from the paper mentioned before).

If you have read my last few posts, this is exactly what happened, I completely failed at successfully assembling this board myself (not the best soldering hand in town!) but thankfully received my fully assembled PCB from China a couple of days ago. The PCB from china worked flawlessly, allowing me to perform the calibration and have a fully functioning potentiostat/galvanostat for home use.

The python software provided by the creators of this potentiostat also worked really well. Using the knowledge I obtained within the last couple of posts, I was able to easily use the drivers provided by the authors to use this software without any issues. The software implements some basic experiments, like CV, charge/discharge curves and Rate testing, but the best thing is that the entire thing is open source, allowing me to customize the experiments to do whatever I want, something I know many researchers wish they could do with the expensive software packages – all closed source – provided by normal potetionstat manufacturers.

These are some charge/discharge curves I am now measuring for a prototytpe battery I made. I modified the software in order to be able to do the charge to 350 uAh, then proceed with the discharge.

This ends my quest for the building of a – now not so much – DIY potentiostat/galvanostat, giving me the functionality of a piece of equipment that usually costs around 1000-3000 USD for just a couple of hundred dollars. Even more, this potentiostat allows me to use current in the -25 to 25 mA range, something that isn’t that common unless you go for the more expensive potentiostats above the 3K+ USD range, since the cheapest potentiostats are usually built for high sensitivity at lower currents – because these are mostly intended for analytical chemistry experiments – rather than for the charging/discharging of battery cells.

My posts will now move onto the experimental batteries I am attempting to build and their characterization. I have always noticed that DIY batteries on the internet are almost never properly characterized – no wonder given how difficult it has been up until now to get access to proper equipment to do so – but with this piece of hardware I will now be able to perform all of these experiments without issues.

Building a DIY opensource USB potentiostat/galvanostat: Part Two

With some improved soldering skills I reattempted soldering of all the components into the brand new PCB I had left from Osha Park. After doing this I still experienced a significant amount of shorts but this time I was able to pinpoint the sources by some smoke coming off the PCB (not the greatest sign!). In the end all the shorts were coming from what seems to be the underside of the microchips, probably related with some flux residue that got carbonized and became somewhat conductive after the chips were soldered and the circuit was powered.

My somewhat successfully powered DIY potentiostat/galvanostat

With this information I now resoldered all the chips, being very careful about cleaning all the flux to ensure that there were not shorts after the chip was put into place. With all these shorts removed I was able to finally power the board without any excessive current drain.

Due to the fact that the drivers that come with this device are unsigned I had to restart windows using the “Advanced boot options” to ensure that driver signing was disabled. Also remember to install pyusb and usblib before launching the python program.

With this done I was able to successfully connect the PCB to the computer and use the software to interact with it. However after trying to do the calibration I noticed that the entire potentiostat/galvanostat functionality was actually not working and I was actually unable to set any potential without the circuit going a bit “crazy”. As you can see in the image below, everytime I tried to set the potential to some value I just got some random potential being set, with current bouncing all over the place.

Trying to set the potential of the device to 1.5V with RE connected to WE and CE connected to SE just generated a bunch of noise

Feeling the temperature of the different chips, the one that is overheating seems to be the OPA4192 chip. I tried to remove it and resolder it again, but I have the same problems and the same type of abnormal behavior. Right now it seems that the most likely scenario is that all my desoldering and soldering endeavors have fried one of the components of the board, meaning that I might not be able to get it to work at all with the current components.

Thankfully plan B is still going on – a PCB being fully assembled by pcbway – so I should be able to get a fully working board within the next couple of weeks. I am still debating whether it’s worth it to order new components and try on a new board – with my already gained experienced – but I think I’ll wait for the working PCB to ensure this board works as I expect it to before I make any further DIY attempts.