By H. S. Webb.[1]

The object in view when the following tests were commenced was to obtain some data from which the dimensions of a liquid rheostat for the dissipation as heat of a given amount of energy could be calculated, or at least estimated, when the maximum current and E.M.F. are known. These tests were rather hastily made and are far from being as complete as I should like to have them, and are published only to answer some inquiries for information on the subject.

In the first test, an ordinary Daniell jar (6¼ inches in diameter by 8 inches deep) with horizontal sheet iron electrodes was filled with tap water. It would not carry 4 amperes for over fifteen or twenty minutes, although the jar was full of water and the plates only ¾ inch apart. After that length of time it became too hot, causing great variation in the current on account of the large amount of gas liberated, much of which adhered to the under surface of the upper electrode. The difference of potential between the plates was 200 volts.

A run was made with 1 ampere and then with 2 amperes for one hour. In the latter case the voltage between the electrodes was about 71 volts and the temperature rose to about 167° F.

From these tests it would be safe to allow a vessel with a cross section of 30.7 square inches to carry from 2 to 2½ amperes when tap water and horizontal electrodes are used.

In test No. 2 the same jar and electrodes were used as in the preceding test, but the tap water was replaced by a saturated solution of salt water. Eleven amperes with a potential difference of 7 volts between the electrodes, which were 7¾ inches apart, were passed through the solution for three hours, and the temperature at the end of the run was 122° F., and was rising very slowly.

Although the current per square inch is much greater, the watts absorbed per cubic inch is much less in this case than when water was used. With the water carrying 2 amperes the watts absorbed would be over 10 per cubic inch, while for the saturated solution of salt when carrying 11 amperes it would be only about 0.4 watt.

In test No. 3 use was made of a long, wooden rectangular trough (42 inches by 6½ inches by 8 inches) with vertical, sheet iron electrodes. The cross section of the liquid, which was a 10 per cent. solution of salt in water, was 44 square inches, and with 10 amperes passing through the solution for 1¾ hours the temperature rose to 95° F., and was rising slowly at the end of the run.

The plates were 41¾ inches apart, and at the end of the run the voltmeter across the terminals read 20. This gives a current density of nearly ¼ ampere per square inch and 0.11 watt per cubic inch. These values are too low to be considered maximum values, for this cross section of a 10 per cent. salt solution would probably carry 13 to 15 amperes safely.

It appears that as the amount of salt in the solution is increased from zero to saturation, the maximum current carrying capacity is increased, but the watts absorbed per cubic inch are less.

A very small addition of salt to tap water makes the solution a much better conductor than the water, and reduces greatly the safe maximum watts absorbed. In using glass vessels, such as Daniell jars, there is danger of cracking the jar if the temperature rises much above 165° to 175° F.

In test No. 4 an ordinary whisky barrel, filled up with tap water, was used. Two horizontal circular iron plates (3/16 inch thick) were used for electrodes. The diameter of the inside of the barrel was approximately 19½ inches. With the two plates 263/ inches apart a difference of potential of 486 volts gave a current of 2.6 amperes. With the plates 7/ inch apart, 228 volts gave 35.5 amperes at the end of one hour, when all the water in the barrel was very hot (175° F.), and there was quite a good deal of gas given off. The current density in this case was about 0.12 ampere per square inch and the watts absorbed 30.5 per cubic inch. If it were not for the large amount of water above both electrodes, it is doubtful if this current density could have been maintained.

In test No. 5 a rectangular box, in which were placed two vertical sheet iron plates, was filled with tap water. The distance between the plates was 5/ inch, and with a difference of potential of 414 at start and 397 at end of the run, a current of 35 amperes was kept flowing for 35 minutes. Cold tap water was kept running in between the electrodes at the rate of 6.11 pounds per minute (about 1/ cubic foot) by means of a small rubber tube about ¼ inch inside diameter. This test is very interesting in comparison with the preceding. The current carrying capacity, 0.3 ampere per square inch, was more than double, and the energy absorbed 183 watts per cubic inch, more than six times as great as in case where running water was not used.

The temperature in some places between the plates occasionally rose as high as 205° F., and it was necessary, in order to avoid too violent ebullition, to keep the inflowing stream of water directed along the water surface between the two plates. Less water would not have been sufficient, and, of course, by using more water, the temperature could have been kept lower, or with the same temperature the watts absorbed could have been increased.

When a large current density is used, there is considerable decomposition of the iron electrodes when either salt or pure water is used, and in the case of horizontal electrodes, the under surface of the top plate may become covered with bubbles of gas, making the resistance between the plates quite variable. For large current density a horizontal top plate is not advisable, unless a large number of holes are drilled through it. A better form for the top electrode would be a hollow cylinder long enough to give sufficient surface. Washing soda is often a convenient substance to use instead of salt.

If, from experience, the size of a liquid rheostat for absorbing a given amount of energy cannot be estimated, the dimensions may be calculated approximately as follows:

Suppose, for instance, it is desired to absorb 60 amperes at 40 volts difference of potential between the electrodes. Now, it is inconvenient to obtain a saturated solution of salt, and to use tap water would require too large a cross section - especially if a barrel or trough is to be used - in order to have the resistance with the plates at a safe distance apart, small enough to give 60 amperes with 40 volts.

Let us try a 10 per cent. solution of salt. Suppose the maximum current this will carry is ¼ ampere per square inch, which will give a cross section of the solution of at least 60 ÷ ¼ = 240 square inches. Now, the specific resistance per inch cube (i.e., the resistance between two opposite surfaces of a cube whose side measures 1 inch) of the 10 per cent. solution of salt used in test No. 3 was 2.12 ohms. The drop, CR, will be 2.12 x ¼ = 0.53 volt per inch length of solution between electrodes. Hence, the electrodes will have to be 40/0.53 = 75 inches apart. This would require about three barrels connected in series. This was taken merely as an illustration, because its specific resistance was known when the current density was ¼ ampere per square inch. This solution, however, will carry safely 1/ ampere per square inch, but I used the previous figure, since I did not know its specific resistance for this current density, because its specific resistance will be lower for a larger current density on account of the higher temperature which it will have, for the resistance of a solution decreases as its temperature increases.

To reduce this length would require a solution of higher specific resistance, that is, a solution containing less than 10 per cent. of salt, and an increase in the cross section, since the maximum carrying capacity also diminishes as the percentage of salt diminishes. Only approximate calculations are useful because variations in temperature, amount of salt actually in solution and the rate at which heat can be radiated, all combine to give results which may vary widely from those calculated.

As a matter of fact, it is seldom necessary or advisable to use a solution containing over 2 or 3 per cent. of salt. The best way to add salt to a liquid rheostat is to make a strong solution in a separate vessel and add as much of this solution as is needed. This avoids the annoying increase in conductivity of the solution which happens when the salt itself is added and is gradually dissolved.

Liquid rheostats are ever so much more satisfactory for alternating than for direct current testing. The electrodes and solution are practically free from decomposition, and a given cross section seems to be able to carry a larger alternating than direct current - probably due partly to the absence of the scum on the surface which hinders the radiation of heat.

[1] In American Electrician.