CC278: Battery Basics

Front of a battery analyzer

The University of Washington recently announced its engineers have created a wireless communications system that enables everyday devices to power up and connect to the web without the use of batteries. Instead, such devices would tap the energy available in wireless signals.

According to an August article on the university’s website,  engineers have developed a communication system that takes advantage of what they call  “ambient backscatter,”  the TV and cellular transmissions all around us. You can read more about the breakthrough by checking out the university article.

It will be some time before such an approach becomes commercially viable. In the meantime, we’ll still be relying heavily on batteries. With that in mind, you should check out columnist George Novacek’s article in Circuit Cellar’s September issue. Novacek goes “back to the basics” of batteries in this first installment of a two-part series.

“Battery usage has increased due to the proliferation of mobile and cordless devices,” Novacek says in Part 1. “This article describes battery types generally available in retail stores. I’ll discuss their features, operation, and usages. While many exotic batteries and custom packages are available, this article focuses on standard batteries, which are the type you are most likely to encounter.”

He opens his discussion by distinguishing between batteries vs. cells and describing common battery packages.

“Although we tend to use the words ‘battery’ and ‘cell’ interchangeably, there is a difference,” Novacek says. “Batteries comprise cells (e.g., the well-known 9-V battery contains six 1.5-V cells, while the omnipresent AA ‘battery’ and many others are just single cells). I will use the common terminology, even though it may be at times technically incorrect.

“Batteries store chemical energy. When activated, the chemical process occurring internally converts the chemical into electrical energy. Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist, is credited with inventing the “voltaic pile” in the early 19th century, although archeological discoveries suggest that some form of an electrical battery was known in ancient Babylon. National Carbon Company, known today as Eveready, began marketing a precursor of the ubiquitous carbon-zinc battery in 1896…

“According to Wikipedia, the most common battery packages available today include AA, AAA, C, D, 9-V pack, and different types of “button cells”. There is also a plethora of custom-made battery packs for power tools, cordless telephones, and so forth. No matter what kind of packaging, the battery principles for the given type remain the same.

“There are two categories of batteries: primary (i.e., single use) and rechargeable. Carbon-zinc is the oldest—and at one point the most common—primary battery. They are available in standard packages and inexpensive. Consequently, carbon-zinc batteries are often included by original equipment manufacturers (OEM) with devices (e.g., TV remote controls, portable radios, etc.). Although they have been improved over the years, some significant shortcomings remain, so I avoid using them.”

Novacek goes on to examine the drawbacks and advantages of carbon-zinc, alkaline, lithium, mercuric-oxide, silver-oxide button cell, lead-acid, nickel-cadmium (NiCad), and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries.

To learn more about what may be powering your handheld or other device, check out the September issue.

DIY, Microcontroller-Based Battery Monitor for RC Aircraft

I’ve had good cause to be reading and perusing a few old Circuit Cellar articles every day for the past several weeks. We’re preparing the upcoming 25th anniversary issue of Circuit Cellar, and part of the process is reviewing the company’s archives back to the first issue. As I read through Circuit Cellar 143 (2002) the other day I thought, why wait until the end of the year to expose our readers to such intriguing articles? Since joining Elektor International Media in 2009, thousands of engineers and students across the globe have become familiar with our magazine, and most of them are unfamiliar with the early articles. It was in those articles that engineers set the foundation for the development of today’s embedded technologies.

Over the next few months, I will highlight some past articles here on CircuitCellar.com as well as in our print magazine. I encourage long-time readers to revisit these articles and projects and reflect on their past and present use values. Newer readers should not regard them as simply historical documents detailing outdated technologies. Not only did the technologies covered lead to the high-level engineering you do today, many of those technologies are still in use.

The article below is about Thomas Black’s “BatMon” battery monitor for RC applications (Circuit Cellar 143, 2002). I am leading with it simply because it was one of the first I worked on.

For years, hobbyists have relied on voltmeters and guesswork to monitor the storage capacity of battery packs for RC models. Black’s precise high-tech battery monitor is small enough to be mounted in the cockpit of an RC model helicopter. Black writes:

I hate to see folks suffer with old-fashioned remedies. After three decades of such anguish, I decided that enough is enough. So what am I talking about? Well, my focus for today’s pain relief is related to monitoring the battery packs used in RC models. The cure comes as BatMon, the sophisticated battery monitoring accessory shown in Photo 1.

Photo 1: The BatMon is small enough to fit in most RC models. The three cables plug into the model’s RC system. A bright LED remotely warns the pilot of battery trouble. The single character display reports the remaining capacity of the battery.

Today, electric model hobbyists use the digital watt-meter devices, but they are designed to monitor the heavy currents consumed by electric motors. I wanted finer resolution so I could use it with my RC receiver and servos. With that in mind, a couple of years ago, I convinced my firm that we should tackle this challenge…My solution evolved into the BatMon, a standalone device that can mount in each model aircraft (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Installation in an RC model is as simple as plugging in three cables. Multiple point measurements allow the system to detect battery-related trouble. Voltage detection at the RC receiver even helps detect stalled servos and electrical issues.

This is not your typical larger-than-life Gotham City solution. It’s only 1.3″ × 2.8″ and weighs one ounce. But the BatMon does have the typical dual persona expected of a super hero. For user simplicity, it reports battery capacity as a zero to nine (0% to 90%) level value. This is my favorite mode because it works just like a car’s gas gauge. However, for those of you who must see hard numbers, it also reports the actual remaining capacity—up to 2500 mAH—with 5% accuracy. In addition, it reports problems associated with battery pack failures, bad on/off switches, and defective servos. A super-bright LED indicator flashes if any trouble is detected. Even in moderate sunlight this visual indicator can be seen from a couple hundred feet away, which is perfect for fly-by checks. The BatMon is compatible with all of the popular battery sizes. Pack capacities from 100 mAH to 2500 mAH can be used. They can be either four-cell or five-cell of either NiCD or NiMH chemistries. The battery parameters are programmed by using a push button and simple menu interface. The battery gauging IC that I used is from Dallas Semiconductor (now Maxim). There are other firms that have similar parts (Unitrode, TI, etc.), but the Dallas DS2438 Smart Battery Monitor was a perfect choice for my RC application (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: A battery fuel gauging IC and a microcontroller are combined to accurately measure the current consumption of an RC system. The singlecharacter LCD is used to display battery data and status messages.

This eight-pin coulomb counting chip contains an A/D-based current accumulator, A/D voltage convertor, and a slew of other features that are needed to get the job done. The famous Dallas one-wire I/O method provides an efficient interface to a PIC16C63 microcontroller…In the BatMon, the one-wire bus begins at pin 6 (port RA4) of the PIC16C63 microcontroller and terminates at the DS2438’s DQ I/O line (pin 8). Using bit-banging I/O, the PIC can read and write the necessary registers. The timing is critical, but the PIC is capable of handling the chore…The BatMon is not a good candidate for perfboard construction. A big issue is that RC models present a harsh operating environment. Vibration and less than pleasant landings demand that you use rugged electronic assembly techniques. My vote is that you design a circuit board for it. It is not a complicated circuit, so with the help of a freeware PCB program you should be on your way…The connections to the battery pack and receiver are made with standard RC hobby servo connectors. They are available at most RC hobby shops. You will need a 22-AWG, two-conductor female cable for the battery (J1), a 22-AWG, two-conductor male for the RC switch (J2), and a three-conductor (any AWG) for the Aux In (J3) connector…The finished unit is mounted in the model’s cockpit using double-sided tape or held with rubber bands (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: Here's how the battery monitor looks installed in the RC model helicopter’s cockpit. You can use the BatMon on RC airplanes, cars, and boats too. Or, you could adapt the design for battery monitoring applications that aren’t RC-related.

Thomas Black designs and supports high-tech devices for the consumer and industrial markets. He is currently involved in telecom test products. During his free time, he can be found flying his RC models. Sometimes he attempts to improve his models by creating odd electronic designs, most of which are greeted by puzzled amusement from his flying pals.

The complete article is now available.