Nickel-Cadmium and Lithium Ion Batteries

Nickel-Cadmium Batteries

Chemistry and Construction

Active materials in nickel-cadmium cells (Ni-Cad) are nickel hydrate (NiOOH) in the charged positive plate (Anode) and sponge cadmium (Cd) in the charged negative plate (Cathode). The electrolyte is a potassium hydroxide (KOH) solution in concentration of 20–34 percent by weight pure KOH in distilled water.

Aircraft batteries
Figure 1. Nickel Cadmium aircraft battery

Sintered nickel-cadmium cells have relatively thin sintered nickel matrices forming a plate grid structure. The grid structure is highly porous and is impregnated with the active positive material (nickel-hydroxide) and the negative material (cadmium-hydroxide). The plates are then formed by sintering nickel powder to fine-mesh wire screen. In other variations of the process, the active material in the sintered matrix is converted chemically, or thermally, to an active state and then formed. In general, there are many steps to these cycles of impregnation and formation. Thin sintered plate cells are ideally suited for very high rate charge and discharge service. Pocket plate nickel-cadmium cells have the positive or negative active material, pressed into pockets of perforated nickel-plated steel plates or into tubes. The active material is trapped securely in contact with a metal current collector so active material shedding is largely eliminated. Plate designs vary in thickness depending upon cycling service requirements. The typical open circuit cell voltage of a nickel-cadmium battery is about 1.25 volts. Figure 1 shows a nickel cadmium aircraft battery.

Operation of Nickel-Cadmium Cells

When a charging current is applied to a nickel-cadmium battery, the negative plates lose oxygen and begin forming metallic cadmium. The active material of the positive plates, nickel-hydroxide, becomes more highly oxidized. This process continues while the charging current is applied or until all the oxygen is removed from the negative plates and only cadmium remains.

Toward the end of the charging cycle, the cells emit gas. This also occurs if the cells are overcharged. This gas is caused by decomposition of the water in the electrolyte into hydrogen at the negative plates and oxygen at the positive plates. The voltage used during charging, as well as the temperature, determines when gassing occurs. To completely charge a nickel-cadmium battery, some gassing, however slight, must take place; thus, some water is used.

The chemical action is reversed during discharge. The positive plates slowly give up oxygen, which is regained by the negative plates. This process results in the conversion of the chemical energy into electrical energy. During discharge, the plates absorb a quantity of the electrolyte. On recharge, the level of the electrolyte rises and, at full charge, the electrolyte is at its highest level. Therefore, water should be added only when the battery is fully charged.

The nickel-cadmium battery is usually interchangeable with the lead-acid type. When replacing a lead-acid battery with a nickel-cadmium battery, the battery compartment must be clean, dry, and free of all traces of acid from the old battery. The compartment must be washed out and neutralized with ammonia or boric acid solution, allowed to dry thoroughly, and then painted with an alkali resisting varnish.

The pad in the battery sump jar should be saturated with a three percent (by weight) solution of boric acid and water before connecting the battery vent system.

General Maintenance and Safety Precautions

Refer to the battery manufacturer for detailed service instructions. Below are general recommendations for maintenance and safety precautions. For vented nickel-cadmium cells, the general maintenance requirements are:
  1. Hydrate cells to supply water lost during overcharging.
  2. Maintain inter-cell connectors at proper torque values.
  3. Keep cell tops and exposed sides clean and dry.

Electrolyte spillage can form grounding paths. White moss around vent cap seals is potassium carbonate (K2CO3). Clean up these surfaces with distilled water and dry. While handling the caustic potassium hydroxide electrolyte, wear safety goggles to protect the eyes. The technician should also wear plastic gloves and an apron to protect skin and clothes. In case of spillage on hands or clothes, neutralize the alkali immediately with vinegar or dilute boric acid solution (one pound per gallon of water); then rinse with clear water.

During overcharging conditions, explosive mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen develop in nickel-cadmium cells. When this occurs, the cell relief valves vent these gases to the atmosphere, creating a potentially explosive hazard. Additionally, room ventilation should be such as to prevent a hydrogen build up in closed spaces from exceeding one percent by volume. Explosions can occur at concentrations above four percent by volume in air.

Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) Batteries

In many applications, sealed lead acid (SLA) batteries are gaining in use over flooded lead acid and Ni-Cad batteries. One leading characteristic of Ni-Cad batteries is that they perform well in low voltage, full-discharge, high cycle applications. However, they do not perform as well in extended standby applications, such as auxiliary or as emergency battery packs used to power inertial reference units or stand-by equipment (attitude gyro).

It is typical during the servicing of a Ni-Cad battery to match as many as twenty individual cells in order to prevent unbalance and thus cell reversal during end of discharge. When a Ni-Cad does reverse, very high pressure and heat can result. The result is often pressure seal rupture, and in the worst case, a cell explosion. With SLA batteries, cell matching is inherent in each battery. Ni-Cads also have an undesirable characteristic caused by constant overcharge and infrequent discharges, as in standby applications. It is technically known as “voltage depression” and commonly but erroneously called “memory effect.” This characteristic is only detectable when a full discharge is attempted. Thus, it is possible to believe a full charge exists, while in fact it does not. SLA batteries do not have this characteristic voltage depression (memory) phenomenon, and therefore do not require scheduled deep cycle maintenance as do Ni-Cads.

The Ni-Cad emergency battery pack requires relatively complicated test equipment due to the complex characteristics of the Ni-Cad. Sealed lead acid batteries do not have these temperamental characteristics and therefore it is not necessary to purchase special battery maintenance equipment. Some manufacturers of SLA batteries have included in the battery packs a means by which the battery can be tested while still installed on the aircraft. Ni-Cads must have a scheduled energy test performed on the bench due to the inability to measure their energy level on the aircraft, and because of their notable “memory” shortcoming.

Sealed Lead Acid Batteries
Figure 2. Sealed battery

The SLA battery can be designed to alert the technician if a battery is failing. Furthermore, it may be possible to test the failure detection circuits by activating a Built in Test (BITE) button. This practice significantly reduces FAA paperwork and maintenance workload. Figure 2 shows a SLA battery.

Lithium Ion Batteries

Lithium ion batteries are the primary type of battery for many consumer type of equipment, such as cell phones, battery-powered tools, and computers, but now they are also being used in commercial and military aircraft. The FAA has certified lithium ion batteries to be used on aircraft and one of the first aircraft to utilize the lithium ion battery is the Boeing 787. The three primary functional components of a lithium-ion battery are the positive and negative electrodes and electrolyte. Generally, the negative electrode of a conventional lithium-ion cell is made from carbon. The positive electrode is a metal oxide, and the electrolyte is a lithium salt in an organic solvent. The electrochemical roles of the electrodes reverse between anode and cathode, depending on the direction of current flow through the cell. Lithium-ion batteries can be dangerous under some conditions and can pose a safety hazard since they contain, unlike other rechargeable batteries, a flammable electrolyte and are also kept pressurized. Under certain conditions, they can overheat and a fire can occur. The Boeing 787 aircraft utilizes two large 32V 8 cell lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are much lighter and more powerful than Ni-Cad batteries used in similar-sized aircraft. These batteries can produce 150 A for airplane power up. Figure 3 shows a B787 battery.

Aircraft battery
Figure 3. Boeing 787 lithium-ion battery

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