What Are the Different Uses of Electrolysis?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

People use electrolysis commonly to improve their personal appearance, but the process is also used in manufacturing. The uses of electrolysis are limited by the chemical bonds that may be constructed or destroyed.

Astronauts get the oxygen they need through electrolysis.
Astronauts get the oxygen they need through electrolysis.

The most-widely known of all uses of electrolysis arguably is hair removal. This type of electrolysis is used for aesthetic purposes. It works by destroying the hair follicle producing the unwanted strand of hair. People often choose electrolysis for hair removal for this reason, because the destruction of the hair follicle results in more permanent hair removal. Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves electrolysis for this purpose, electrolysis isn't always best for removing large amounts of hair, as it requires treating individual follicles.

Electrolysis can be used to separate water molecules into their base elements.
Electrolysis can be used to separate water molecules into their base elements.

Electrolysis induces chemical reactions that otherwise would not happen, which means that there are multiple uses of electrolysis in industrial manufacturing. For example, some companies use it to make certain metals more resistant to corrosion, a process known as anodization. People also use electrolysis to etch and decorate metal surfaces, as well as for layering metals to make them stronger. The technique also is useful for electrometallurgy, which is separating and purifying metals.

Uses for electrolysis also include separating water molecules into their base elements of hydrogen and oxygen. This technique is useful in harsh or restricted environments. Astronauts, for instance, get the oxygen they need through electrolysis, as do those who travel on submarines.

Another of the uses of electrolysis is the creation of substances. Sodium chlorate, potassium chlorate, chlorine and aluminum all are produced via electrolysis. Other substances created via electrolysis are magnesium and calcium. These substances are used for tasks like building, bleaching and sterilizing.

Individuals also can study solutions using electrolysis, a field known as polarography. The principle of polarography is that one can conduct qualitative or quantitative analysis by comparing the amount of the voltage applied to the solution to the amount of current that passes through the solution. Polarography works on the two primary principles: the first principle is that the amount of current passed through a solution is proportional to the amount of elements separated. The second principle is that the mass of the separated elements equal the atomic masses of the elements, provided the researcher applies an integral divisor.

The uses of electrolysis require that scientists and manufacturers have a thorough understanding of chemistry at the molecular and atomic levels. This is because the safety of the scientist or manufacturer depends on producing predictable reactions, thereby producing predictable, safe substances or bonds. Electrolysis is not suitable when the process would create chemical hazards.

Many people undergo electrolysis for hair removal.
Many people undergo electrolysis for hair removal.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - I'd never realized that electrolysis that you use to get rid of hair is the same kind that they use to separate different elements from each other. I guess it's basically just applying electricity to something in a particular way.

It kind of makes me even more nervous about lightning storms, since they could potentially be hitting the wrong kind of chemical and creating a poisonous gas or something.


@Iluviaporos - You've got to bear in mind how much oxygen and hydrogen can be freed from a small amount of water. We don't really think about how much further apart air molecules are when compared to liquid molecules, but it's considerable, so there is a lot more oxygen in the same volume of water than in a tank of oxygen.

Space travel is all about being as efficient as possible, so I'm sure that the researchers involved have calculated every possible variation on how this works. And this is also why everyone gets so excited whenever they think they've found water somewhere like Mars. It doesn't matter if there is free oxygen up there if we can find water, because with the water we can create our own.


I didn't realize that they used electrolysis to create oxygen in space. I would have thought that bringing up water to create oxygen would be more of a hassle than just bringing up tanks of oxygen in the first place. Water surely has more weight than oxygen, which would count a lot in the initial liftoff. And you would also have to deal with the leftover hydrogen (although I guess they could use that as fuel). It just doesn't seem all that efficient.

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