Electric conductor, usually metal, used as one of two terminals to conduct electric current through a conducting medium. A simple voltaic cell, or battery, consists of two electrodes, usually one zinc and one copper, immersed in an electrolytic solution (see electrolyte). When a chemical reaction occurs in the solution, electrons gather on the zinc electrode, or cathode, which becomes negatively charged. At the same time, electrons are drawn from the copper electrode, the anode, giving it a positive charge. The difference in charge sets up a potential difference, or voltage, between the two electrodes. When they are connected by a conducting wire, electrons flow from the cathode to the anode, producing a current.
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An electrode is an electrical conductor used to make contact with a nonmetallic part of a circuit (e.g. a semiconductor, an electrolyte or a vacuum). The word was coined by the scientist Michael Faraday from the Greek words elektron (meaning amber, from which the word electricity is derived) and hodos, a way.
An electrode in an electrochemical cell is referred to as either an anode or a cathode, words that were also coined by Faraday. The anode is now defined as the electrode at which electrons leave the cell and oxidation occurs, and the cathode as the electrode at which electrons enter the cell and reduction occurs. Each electrode may become either the anode or the cathode depending on the voltage applied to the cell. A bipolar electrode is an electrode that functions as the anode of one cell and the cathode of another cell.
In a three-electrode cell, a counter electrode, also called an auxiliary electrode, is used only to make a connection to the electrolyte so that a current can be applied to the working electrode. The counter electrode is usually made of an inert material, such as a noble metal or graphite, to keep it from dissolving.