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Electrolysis

Electrolysis

Electrolysis is a process by which electrical energy is used to produce a chemical change. Perhaps the most familiar example of electrolysis is the decomposition (breakdown) of water into hydrogen and oxygen by means of an electric current. The same process can be used to decompose compounds other than water. Sodium, chlorine, magnesium, and aluminum are four elements produced commercially by electrolysis.

Principles

The electrolysis of water illustrates the changes that take place when an electric current passes through a chemical compound. Water consists of water molecules, represented by the formula H2O. In any sample of water, some small fraction of molecules exist in the form of ions, or charged particles. Ions are formed in water when water molecules break apart to form positively charged hydrogen ions and negatively charged hydroxide ions. Chemists describe that process with the following chemical equation:

H2O H+ + OH

In order for electrolysis to occur, ions must exist. Seawater can be electrolyzed, for example, because it contains many positively charged sodium ions (Na+) and negatively charged chloride ions (Cl). Any liquid, like seawater, that contains ions is called an electrolyte.

Water is not usually considered an electrolyte because it contains so few hydrogen and hydroxide ions. Normally, only one water molecule out of two billion ionizes. In contrast, sodium chloride (table salt) breaks apart completely when dissolved in water. A salt water solution consists entirely of sodium ions and chloride ions.

In order to electrolyze water, then, one prior step is necessary. Some substance, similar to sodium chloride, must be added to water to make it an electrolyte. The substance that is usually used is sulfuric acid.

The electrolysis process

The equipment used for electrolysis of a compound consists of three parts: a source of DC (direct) current; two electrodes; and an electrolyte. A common arrangement consists of a battery (the source of current) whose two poles are attached to two strips of platinum metal (the electrodes), which are immersed in water to which a few drops of sulfuric acid have been added (the electrolyte).

Electrolysis begins when electrical current (a flow of electrons) flows out of one pole of the battery into one electrode, the cathode. Positive hydrogen ions (H+) in the electrolyte pick up electrons from that electrode and become neutral hydrogen molecules (H2):

2 H+ + 2 e H2

(Hydrogen molecules are written as H2 because they always occur as pairs of hydrogen atoms. The same is true for molecules of oxygen, O2.)

As the electrolysis of water occurs, one can see tiny bubbles escaping from the electrolyte at the cathode. These are bubbles of hydrogen gas.

Words to Know

Anode: The electrode in an electrolytic cell through which electrons move from the electrolyte to the battery.

Cathode: The electrode in an electrolytic cell through which electrons move from the battery to the electrolyte.

Electrolyte: Any substance that, when dissolved in water, conducts an electric current.

Electrolytic cell: A system in which electrical energy is used to bring about chemical changes.

Electroplating: A process that uses an electrolytic cell to deposit a thin layer of metal on some kind of surface.

Ion: Any particle, such as an atom or molecule, that carries an electric charge.

Bubbles can also be seen escaping from the second electrode, the anode. The anode is connected to the second pole of the battery, the pole through which electrons enter the battery. At this electrode, electrons are being taken out of the electrolyte and fed back into the battery. The electrons come from negatively charged hydroxide ions (OH), which have an excess of electrons. The anode reaction is slightly more complicated than the cathode reaction, as shown by this chemical equation:

4 OH 4 e O2 + 2 H2O

Essentially this equation says that electrons are taken away from hydroxide ions and oxygen gas is produced in the reaction. The oxygen gas bubbles off at the anode, while the extra water formed remains behind in the electrolyte.

The overall reaction that takes place in the electrolysis of water is now obvious. Electrons from the battery are given to hydrogen ions in the electrolyte, changing them into hydrogen gas. Electrons are taken from hydroxide ions in the electrolyte and transferred to the battery. Over time, water molecules are broken down to form hydrogen and oxygen molecules:

2 H2O 2 H2 + O2

Commercial applications

Preparing elements. Electrolysis is used to break down compounds that are very stable. For example, aluminum is a very important metal in modern society. It is used in everything from pots and pans to space shuttles. But the main natural source of aluminum, aluminum oxide, is a very stable compound. A compound that is stable is difficult to break apart. You can't get aluminum out of aluminum oxide just by heating the compoundyou need more energy than heat can provide.

Aluminum is prepared by an electrolytic process first discovered in 1886 by a 21-year-old student at Oberlin College in Ohio, Charles Martin Hall (18631914). Hall found a way of melting aluminum oxide and then electrolyzing it. Once melted, aluminum oxide forms ions of aluminum and oxygen, which behave in much the same way as hydrogen and hydroxide ions in the previous example. Pure aluminum metal is obtained at the cathode, while oxygen gas bubbles off at the anode. Sodium, chlorine, and magnesium are three other elements obtained commercially by an electrolytic process similar to the Hall process.

Refining of copper. Electrolysis can be used for purposes other than preparing elements. One example is the refining of copper. Very pure copper is often required in the manufacture of electrical equipment. (A purity of 99.999 percent is not unusual.) The easiest way to produce a product of this purity is with electrolysis.

An electrolytic cell for refining copper contains very pure copper at the cathode, impure copper at the anode, and copper sulfate as the electrolyte. When the anode and cathode are connected to a battery, electrons flow into the cathode, where they combine with copper ions (Cu2+) in the electrolyte:

Cu2+ + 2 e Cu0

Pure copper metal (Cu0 in the above equation) is formed on the cathode.

At the anode, copper atoms (Cu0) lose electrons and become copper ions (Cu2+) in the electrolyte:

Cu0 2 e Cu2+

Overall, the only change that occurs in the cell is that copper atoms from the impure anode become copper ions in the electrolyte. Those copper ions are then plated out on the cathode. Any impurities in the anode are just left behind, and nearly 100 percent pure copper builds up on the cathode.

Electroplating. Another important use of electrolytic cells is in the electroplating of silver, gold, chromium, and nickel. Electroplating produces a very thin coating of these expensive metals on the surfaces of cheaper metals, giving them the appearance and the chemical resistance of the expensive ones.

In silver plating, the object to be plated (a spoon, for example) is used as the cathode. A bar of silver metal is used as the anode. And the electrolyte is a solution of silver cyanide (AgCN). When this arrangement is connected to a battery, electrons flow into the cathode where they combine with silver ions (Ag+) from the electrolyte to form silver atoms (Ag0):

Ag+ + 1 e Ag0

These silver atoms plate out as a thin coating on the cathodein this case, the spoon. At the anode, silver atoms give up electrons and become silver ions in the electrolyte:

Ag0 1 e Ag0

Silver is cycled, therefore, from the anode to the electrolyte to the cathode, where it is plated out.

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electrolysis

electrolysis (Ĭlĕktrŏl´əsĬs), passage of an electric current through a conducting solution or molten salt that is decomposed in the process.

The Electrolytic Process

The electrolytic process requires that an electrolyte, an ionized solution or molten metallic salt, complete an electric circuit between two electrodes. When the electrodes are connected to a source of direct current one, called the cathode, becomes negatively (-) charged while the other, called the anode, becomes positively (+) charged. The positive ions in the electrolyte will move toward the cathode and the negatively charged ions toward the anode. This migration of ions through the electrolyte constitutes the electric current in that part of the circuit. The migration of electrons into the anode, through the wiring and an electric generator, and then back to the cathode constitutes the current in the external circuit.

For example, when electrodes are dipped into a solution of hydrogen chloride (a compound of hydrogen and chlorine) and a current is passed through it, hydrogen gas bubbles off at the cathode and chlorine at the anode. This occurs because hydrogen chloride dissociates (see dissociation) into hydrogen ions (hydrogen atoms that have lost an electron) and chloride ions (chlorine atoms that have gained an electron) when dissolved in water. When the electrodes are connected to a source of direct current, the hydrogen ions are attracted to the cathode, where they each gain an electron, becoming hydrogen atoms again. Hydrogen atoms pair off into hydrogen molecules that bubble off as hydrogen gas. Similarly, chlorine ions are attracted to the anode, where they each give up an electron, become chlorine atoms, join in pairs, and bubble off as chlorine gas.

Commercial Applications of Electrolysis

Various substances are prepared commercially by electrolysis, e.g., chlorine by the electrolysis of a solution of common salt; hydrogen by the electrolysis of water; heavy water (deuterium oxide) for use in nuclear reactors, also by electrolysis of water. A metal such as aluminum is refined by electrolysis. A solution of aluminum oxide in a molten mineral decomposes into pure aluminum at the cathode and into oxygen at the anode. In these examples the electrodes are inert.

Electroplating

In electroplating, the plating metal is generally the anode, and the object to be plated is the cathode. A solution of a salt of the plating metal is the electrolyte. The plating metal is deposited on the cathode, and the anode replenishes the supply of positive ions, thus gradually being dissolved. Electrotype printing plates, silverware, and chrome automobile trim are plated by electrolysis.

The English scientist Michael Faraday discovered that the amount of a material deposited on an electrode is proportional to the amount of electricity used. The ratio of the amount of material deposited in grams to the amount of electricity used is the electrochemical equivalent of the material. Actual electric consumption may be as high as four times the theoretical consumption because of such factors as heat loss and undesirable side reactions.

Electric Cells

An electric cell is an electrolytic system in which a chemical reaction causes a current to flow in an external circuit; it essentially reverses electrolysis. A battery is a single electric cell (or two or more such cells linked together for additional power) used as a source of electrical energy. Metal corrosion can take place by electrolysis in an unintentionally created electric cell. The Italian physicist Alessandro Volta discovered the principle of the electric cell (see voltaic cell) in 1800. Within a few weeks William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle, English scientists, performed the first electrolysis, breaking water down into oxygen and hydrogen.

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electrolysis

e·lec·trol·y·sis / ilekˈträləsis; ˌēlek-/ • n. 1. Chem. chemical decomposition produced by passing an electric current through a liquid or solution containing ions. 2. the removal of hair roots or small blemishes on the skin by the application of heat using an electric current. DERIVATIVES: e·lec·tro·lyt·ic / iˌlektrəˈlitik/ adj. e·lec·tro·lyt·i·cal / iˌlektrəˈlitikəl/ adj. e·lec·tro·lyt·i·cal·ly / iˌlektrəˈlitik(ə)lē/ adv.

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electrolysis

electrolysis Chemical reaction caused by passing a direct current (DC) through an electrolyte. This results in positive ions migrating to the negative electrode (cathode) and negative ions migrating to the positive electrode (anode). Electrolysis is an important method of obtaining chemicals, particularly reactive elements such as sodium, magnesium, aluminium and chlorine. A commercial use is in electroplating.

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electrolysis

electrolysis (i-lek-trol-i-sis) n.
1. the chemical decomposition of a substance (see electrolyte) into positively and negatively charged ions (see anion, cation) when an electric current is passed through it.

2. destruction of tissue, especially hair follicles (see epilation), by the passage of an electric current.

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electrolysis

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