The ebook FEEE - Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics is based on material originally written by T.R. Kuphaldt and various co-authors. For more information please read the copyright pages.

Mercury Standard Cells

Back in the early days of electrical measurement technology, a special type of battery known as a mercury standard cell was popularly used as a voltage calibration standard. The output of a mercury cell was 1.0183 to 1.0194 volts DC (depending on the specific design of cell), and was extremely stable over time. Advertised drift was around 0.004 percent of rated voltage per year. Mercury standard cells were sometimes known as Weston cells or cadmium cells.

Unfortunately, mercury cells were rather intolerant of any current drain and could not even be measured with an analog voltmeter without compromising accuracy. Manufacturers typically called for no more than 0.1 mA of current through the cell, and even that figure was considered a momentary, or surge maximum! Consequently, standard cells could only be measured with a potentiometric (null-balance) device where current drain is almost zero. Short-circuiting a mercury cell was prohibited, and once short-circuited, the cell could never be relied upon again as a standard device.

Mercury standard cells were also susceptible to slight changes in voltage if physically or thermally disturbed. Two different types of mercury standard cells were developed for different calibration purposes: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated standard cells provided the greatest voltage stability over time, at the expense of thermal instability. In other words, their voltage drifted very little with the passage of time (just a few microvolts over the span of a decade!), but tended to vary with changes in temperature (tens of microvolts per degree Celsius). These cells functioned best in temperature-controlled laboratory environments where long-term stability is paramount. Unsaturated cells provided thermal stability at the expense of stability over time, the voltage remaining virtually constant with changes in temperature but decreasing steadily by about 100 μV every year. These cells functioned best as "field" calibration devices where ambient temperature is not precisely controlled. Nominal voltage for a saturated cell was 1.0186 volts, and 1.019 volts for an unsaturated cell.

Modern semiconductor voltage (zener diode regulator) references have superseded standard cell batteries as laboratory and field voltage standards.

Last Update: 2010-12-01