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- This article is about the chemical process. For the method of epilation, see Electrology.
In chemistry and manufacturing, electrolysis is a method of separating bonded elements and compounds by passing an electric current through them. This can be seen in isolating copper compound from its ore.
An ionic compound is dissolved with an appropriate solvent, or otherwise melted by heat, so that its ions are available in the liquid. An electrical current is applied between a pair of inert electrodes immersed in the liquid. The negatively charged electrode is called the cathode, and the positively charged one the anode. Each electrode attracts ions which are of the opposite charge. Therefore, positively charged ions (called cations) move towards the cathode, while negatively charged ions (termed anions) move toward the anode. The energy required to separate the ions, and cause them to gather at the respective electrodes, is provided by an electrical power supply. At the probes, electrons are absorbed or released by the ions, forming a collection of the desired element or compound.
In electrolysis, the anode is the positive electrode, meaning it has a deficit of electrons; species in contact with the anode can be stripped of electrons (i.e., they are oxidized). The cathode is the negative electrode, meaning it has a surplus of electrons. Species in contact with the cathode tend to gain electrons (i.e., they are reduced).
The amount of electrical energy that must be added equals the change in Gibbs free energy of the reaction plus the losses in the system. The losses can (theoretically) be arbitrarily close to zero, so the maximum thermodynamic efficiency equals the enthalpy change divided by the free energy change of the reaction. In most cases the electric input is larger than the enthalpy change of the reaction, so some energy is released in the form of heat.
In some cases, for instance in the electrolysis of steam into hydrogen and oxygen at high temperature, the opposite is true. Heat is absorbed from the surroundings, and the heating value of the produced hydrogen is higher than the electric input. In this case the efficiency can be said to be greater than 100%. (It is worth noting that the maximum theoretic efficiency of a fuel cell is the inverse of that of electrolysis. It is thus impossible to create a perpetual motion machine by combining the two processes. See water fuel cell for an example of such an attempt.)
A higher current flow (amperage) through the cell means it will be passing more electrons through it at any given time. This means a faster rate of reduction at the cathode and a faster rate of oxidation at the anode. This corresponds to a greater number of moles of product. The amount of current that passes depends on the conductance of the electrodes and electrolyte, though it also depends on how much current the power source itself can generate. Current also makes a difference in that it can shift chemical equilibria by sheer mass action. The processes in an electrolytic cell with just two or three reactants can become very, very complex. Most of the time it is best to search the literature to see what current density works best for a desired process. For instance, metals plated at a certain current density might form a durable and shiny coating on the substrate, while some other current density might form an excessively grainy, dull coating.
A higher potential difference (voltage) applied to the cell means the cathode will have more energy to bring about reduction, and the anode will have more energy to bring about oxidation. Higher potential difference enables the electrolytic cell to oxidize and reduce energetically more "difficult" compounds. This can drastically change what products will form in a given experiment. On a practical level, both current and voltage determine what will form in a cell.
The following technologies are related to electrolysis:
- Electrochemical cells, including the hydrogen fuel cell, use the reverse of this process.
- Gel electrophoresis is an electrolysis where the solvent is a gel: it is used to separate substances, such as DNA strands, based on their electrical charge.
Electrolysis of water
Hoffman electrolysis apparatus used in electrolysis of water
One important use of electrolysis of water is to produce hydrogen.
- 2H2O(l) → 2H2(g) + O2(g)
This has been suggested as a way of shifting society toward using hydrogen as an energy carrier for powering electric motors and internal combustion engines. (See hydrogen economy.)
Electrolysis of water can be observed by passing direct current from a battery or other DC power supply (e.g. computer power supply 5 volt rail) through a cup of water (in practice a saltwater solution increases the reaction intensity making it easier to observe). Using platinum electrodes, hydrogen gas will be seen to bubble up at the cathode, and oxygen will bubble at the anode. If other metals are used as the anode, there is a chance that the oxygen will react with the anode instead of being released as a gas. For example using iron electrodes in a sodium chloride solution electrolyte, iron oxide will be produced at the anode, which will react to form iron hydroxide. When producing large quantities of hydrogen, this can significantly contaminate the electrolytic cell - which is why iron is not used for commercial electrolysis.
The energy efficiency of water electrolysis varies widely. The efficiency is a measure of what fraction of electrical energy used is actually contained within the hydrogen. Some of the electrical energy is converted to heat, a useless by-product. Some reports quote efficiencies between 50–70% This efficiency is based on the Lower Heating Value of Hydrogen. The Lower Heating Value of Hydrogen is thermal energy released when Hydrogen is combusted. This does not represent the total amount of energy within the Hydrogen, hence the efficiency is lower than a more strict definition. Other reports quote the theoretical maximum efficiency of electrolysis. The theoretical maximum efficiency is between 80–94%.. The theoretical maximum considers the total amount of energy absorbed by both the hydrogen and oxygen. These values only refer to the efficiency of converting electrical energy into hydrogen's chemical energy. The energy lost in generating the electricity is not included. For instance, when considering a power plant that converts the heat of nuclear reactions into hydrogen via electrolysis, the total efficiency is more like 25–40%.
About four percent of hydrogen gas produced worldwide is created by electrolysis, and normally used onsite. Hydrogen is used for the creation of ammonia for fertilizer via the Haber process, and converting heavy petroleum sources to lighter fractions via hydrocracking. There is some speculation about future development of hydrogen as an energy carrier.
Typically in industry, voltages as high as 17 kV may be used to eliminate the need for the electrodes to be physically close, and ionic compounds such as salt are not added.
Scientific pioneers of electrolysis included:
- Humphry Davy
- Michael Faraday
- Paul Héroult
- Svante Arrhenius
- Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe
- William Nicholson
- Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac
- Alexander von Humboldt
- William Chiang
- David Kondner
More recently, electrolysis of heavy water was performed by Fleischmann and Pons in their famous experiment, allegedly resulting in anomalous heat generation and the controversial claim of cold fusion.
First law of electrolysis
In 1832, Michael Faraday reported that the quantity of elements separated by passing an electrical current through a molten or dissolved salt was proportional to the quantity of electric charge passed through the circuit. This became the basis of the first law of electrolysis.
Second law of electrolysis
Faraday also discovered that the mass of the resulting separated elements was directly proportional to the atomic masses of the elements when an appropriate integral divisor was applied. This provided strong evidence that discrete particles of electricity existed as parts of the atoms of elements.
- Manufacture of aluminium, lithium, sodium, potassium, aspirin.
- Manufacture of hydrogen for hydrogen cars and fuel cells.
- High-temperature electrolysis is also being used for this.
- Coulometric techniques can be used to determine the amount of matter transformed during electrolysis by measuring the amount of electricity required to perform the electrolysis.
- Manufacture of chlorine and sodium hydroxide.
- Manufacture of sodium and potassium chlorate.
- Manufacture of perfluorinated organic compounds like trifluoroacetic acid.
Electrolysis has many uses:
- 1. Electrometallurgy is the process of reduction of metals from metallic compounds to obtain the pure form of metal using electrolysis. For example: Sodium Hydroxide in its metallic form is separated by electrolysis into sodium and hydrogen, both of which have important chemical uses.
- 2. Anodization is another very important use of electrolysis. It makes the surface of metals resistant to corrosion. Such as ships in water are saved from being corroded by oxygen in water by this process which is done with the help of electrolysis. This process is also used to make surfaces more decorative.
- 3. Electro refining is used to purify metals by electrolysis. As in, if a compound of copper and some impurities is electrolyzed, the copper gets separated and pure copper forms around the cathode while the impurities form around the anode.
- 4. Electrolyzed Water has been found to be the most pure form of water and is used in many dentistry and medicinal applications.
- 5. A battery works due to electrolysis. Humphry Davy also discovered it when he discovered electrolysis. He found that lithium acts as an electrolyte and provides energy in the form of current for things to run. Battery is the fuel of all technology today. Hence, proving the most important benefit of electrolysis.
- 6. Breathing in space is another use of electrolysis. The oxygen that astronauts breathe in space is produced by electrolysis of water, which uses solar panels and solar energy as a source of electric current passing through water.
- 7. Electroplating is yet another use of electrolysis. It is used in layering metals to fortify them. Electroplating is used in many industries for functional and/or decorative purposes, such as in vehicles. This process also layers the nickel coins.
- 8. Scientists already have prepared the plans for future use of electrolysis. It has been found that hydrogen could be the fuel of the future. The process of electrolysis can obtain this hydrogen. All that is needed is a lot of cheap electricity to perform this process.
Look up electrolysis in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
- Faraday's law of electrolysis
- The Faraday constant
- Michael Faraday
- Gas cracker
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