After getting removed from a parent’s basement, my friend showed me the bag of retro games and consoles her parents had returned to her after years of sitting dormant. In my excitement of holding an original Game Boy, I flipped the device on only to have nothing happen. Batteries must be dead, was my natural assumption. I opened the battery compartment to find the batteries had leaked and corrosion EVERYWHERE.
A younger me would have said, “Well, nothing we can do with it now. We’ll have to get rid of it.” And if time travel were a thing, I might go back and give my younger self a rough shake and an education on when to declare an electronic dead.
My younger self was told to never touch exploded batteries; “it’s acid and it will burn”. Well, it was a half-truth from my parents to keep me from playing with something potentially dangerous. Alkaline batteries don’t leak acid, they actually leak a material that registers as a base on the pH scale: potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide is a conductive solution used in alkaline batteries that can be harmful to us if the proper precautions are not taken in handling it. It’s a corrosive and can cause an itchy/burning sensation if it comes into contact with your skin, eyes, or if inhaled, so be sure to use gloves, safety glasses, and work in a well-ventilated area. Also, I wish it could go without saying, but DO NOT INGEST and wash your hands and work area after any contact with it, gloves or no.
Cleaning Alkaline Corrosion
(Please make sure you’re working with alkaline batteries before performing this cleaning method.)
When cleaning alkaline battery leaks, you want to use an acid like vinegar or lemon juice to take on the base corrosion. What you don’t want to use are other base materials to clean it like baking soda, ammonia, or bleach, you may just make things worse this way. If you’re concerned that the acid may be too strong for cleaning your device, feel free to use a 50/50 mix (equal parts) of distilled water and vinegar or distilled water and lemon juice instead.
Use a Q-tip or small brush (soft bristle toothbrushes work just fine, just don’t use it for teeth cleaning afterwards) dipped in your chosen cleaning acid to scrub off/eat away the corrosion. Wipe with a dry cloth to remove any lingering corrosive particles. Repeat as necessary and let it dry completely before trying to put new batteries in. (Recycle old batteries.)
Some devices are caked in corrosion and require a more thorough cleaning which involves taking the device apart and soaking the contacts as I had to do for this poor Game Boy.
What if I can’t save it?
Corrosion is the eventual fate of all metals, whether they are corroded irreparably depends on the type of metal and the type of corrosive as well as the amount of corrosive it’s been exposed to and how long it’s been there. I don’t know how long the batteries in this device have been leaking exactly, but the corrosion had eaten through enough of the top layers of metal to pockmark it. Fortunately, it was not enough to cause it to be irreparable for this project, a good scrub allowed us to get this device up and running again.
Should the damage to your device be irreparable and replacement parts unable to be found, recycling your device is the best course of action to take. Since Illinois state law has a ban on electronics like these in landfills, you can find local recyclers that can take your devices. Nintendo also offers repair of their products and take back programs which will allow you to send your old Nintendo devices (and sometimes other companies devices) in for recycling for free. Sony also offers a version of recycling as well.
What if it’s not Alkaline Battery Corrosion?
In regards to other types of corrosion, the cleaning methods vary. Different corrosives require different techniques. Isopropyl alcohol (90% and higher) is frequently used to clean/rinse motherboards as it dries quickly, but you could also soak/rinse a board (only the board, no power source or hard drive, etc.) in distilled or de-ionized water. It’s not the water itself that causes the corrosion, but the impurities and chemicals found in the water (like fluoride and chlorine). We don’t recommend submerging the boards although it can be done, we find it a bit risky and wasteful of resources, instead we use Qtips to apply cleaner/remove corrosion and soft bristle toothbrushes for some extra scrubbing power when needed.