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What is Electrochemistry?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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Electrochemistry is a branch within the field of chemistry which involves the intersection between chemical reactions and electrical currents. Some chemical reactions can be catalyzed by the presence of an electrical current, and conversely, it is possible to generate electricity through the process of a chemical reaction. While this pursuit may sound esoteric, chances are very high that you are benefiting from electrochemistry at this very moment, or that you will be at some point today, because it is the underlying process behind a wide range of things, from chemical signaling in your own body to the operation of a car battery.

Modern electrochemistry has diverged significantly from the 18th century roots of this field of study. In addition to inspiring a great deal of pure research, electrochemistry is used in a wide range of industrial processes, and in technology utilized in numerous settings. Earlier researchers were primarily interested in explaining phenomena they didn't understand, while modern researchers are interested in finding new applications for electrochemistry, and in understanding complex electrochemical reactions. They are also interested in understanding electrochemical reactions on a very small scale and basic level, now that the technology for precise observations of this type is available.

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All living organisms use electrochemistry to one degree or another, from the electric eel to the humble houseplant. Living organisms have noticeable electric fields which are generated by chemical reactions in their bodies, and electrochemical reactions are involved in a number of biological processes. For this reason, some biologists are interested in electrochemistry, as are other people who work in the natural world or are interested in the natural environment.

One of the underlying concepts in electrochemistry is the reduction/oxidation or redox reaction, which describes a situation in which electrons are gained or lost. While a small scale reaction will not generate usable energy, it involves the very same electrons which move through the wiring in a home, and these reactions can be used to generate a usable electrical current. Processes like photosynthesis and respiration involve redox reactions, making them electrochemical in nature.

Electrochemistry is also used in scientific laboratories, for processing and analyzing a range of materials. It is also used in processes such as electroplating, in which the property of electrodeposition is harnessed, and in the operation of batteries, which utilize a chemical reaction to generate electrical energy. Another example of a natural electrochemical reaction is corrosion, especially iron oxidation, which is better known as "rust" among lay people.

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Fiorite
Post 6

@Framemaker- Using electricity to prevent rust is actually used in some sectors. I have seen cars with electrolysis systems that will reduce and prevent rust on vehicles. The electrolysis system is connected to the vehicle by a few metal strips and creates an electric charge on the vehicle, removing oxygen and reducing oxidation in the process.

Electrolysis is also becoming increasing important in bridge and structure engineering. By running a slight charge through a bridge or structure, engineers can prolong the life of the structure by preventing premature internal oxidation.

GlassAxe
Post 5

@Glasshouse- I am by no means an expert on fuel cells, but I have messed with a little bit of electrochemistry equipment in my lab courses before. Fuel cells are fairly complex, but I can give you a basic rundown of how they work.

A fuel cell is made up of an electrolyte that separates the two reactants; the hydrogen or methane fuel and the oxygen reactant. This electrolyte is sandwiched between the two electrodes that are used as catalysts for the reaction. This stack is then sandwiched between two bipolar plates that transfer the stored chemical energy of the atom into electricity to do work.

The hydrogen from the reactants is pushed through the electrolytic membrane, allowing the hydrogen to form with the oxygen to create water. In the process, the electrolyte pulls the electrons from the hydrogen which are passed through the system as electricity. My definition is crude, but I hope it suffices.

Glasshouse
Post 4

How do electrochemistry cells like hydrogen fuel cells work? I have had an interest in these types of electrochemical devices since I read something about the bloombox (I think this is what they are called) hydrogen fuel cell.

I recently watched a show about google purchasing a large number of these bloomboxes to help power their headquarters.

The show went on to talk about how these large hydrogen fuel cells can be installed as modular units to power entire blocks and neighborhoods. How would these work? Are hydrogen fuel cells safe considering that hydrogen is a flammable gas? Does anyone know of any interesting articles on this area of electrochemistry?

FrameMaker
Post 3

@istria- Is there any way to use electrochemistry to create products that do not corrode? Is it possible to prevent oxidation through the use of electricity? I have heard of electrifying things like bridges and structures to prevent them from rusting out. I have also heard of special coatings that can prevent the oxidation reactions you wrote about from concurring. Can you explain these two processes for reducing the rusting of infrastructure to me please?

istria
Post 2

@highlighter- I found that the easiest way to think of a redox reaction is to think of the corrosion of metals. In electrochemistry, corrosion is a common type of redox, or oxidation-reduction, reaction. Corrosion is a chemical reaction that occurs when electrons are transferred between two types of substances. The caveat is that one of the substances needs to be a metal for rust (oxidation) to occur.

The general workings of an oxidation-reduction reaction involve the electrochemical transfer of electrons between the products and reactants. The simplest way that you can describe the reaction is that the metal commonly loses one or more electrons, becoming oxidized in the process. The non-metal will gain these reactions, thus becoming reduced.

highlighter
Post 1

Redox reactions were probably the types of reactions that I understand the least in my chemistry studies. Can someone explain a redox reaction to me so I might have a better understanding of how it is the basis of electrochemistry?

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