Electrochemical cell

An electrochemical cell is a device used for generating an electromotive force (voltage) and current from chemical reactions. The current is caused by the reactions releasing and accepting electrons at the different ends of a conductor. A common example of an electrochemical cell is a standard 1.5-volt battery.


An electrochemical cell consists of two half-cells. The two half-cells may use the same electrolyte, or they may use different electrolytes. Each half-cell consists of an electrode, and an electrolyte. One half-cell undergoes oxidation, and the other one undergoes reduction. The reactions may involve the electrolyte, the electrodes or an external substance (as in fuel cells which may use hydrogen gas as a reactant). In a full electrochemical cell, ions, atoms or molecules from one half-cell lose electrons (oxidation) to their electrode while ions, atoms or molecules from the other half-cell gain electrons (reduction) from their electrode. Finally, a salt bridge is often employed to provide electrical contact between two half-cells with very different electrolytes—to prevent the solutions from mixing. This can simply be a strip of filter paper soaked in saturated potassium nitrate (V) solution. Other devices for achieving separation of solutions are porous pots and gelled solutions. A porous pot is used in the Bunsen cell below (between the electrodes).

Each half-cell has a characteristic voltage. Different choices of substances for each half-cell give different potential differences. Each reaction is undergoing an equilibrium reaction between different oxidation states of the ions—when equilibrium is reached the cell cannot provide further voltage. In the half-cell which is undergoing oxidation, the closer the equilibrium lies to the ion/atom with the more positive oxidation state the more potential this reaction will provide. Similarly, in the reduction reaction, the further the equilibrium lies to the ion/atom with the more negative oxidation state the higher the potential.

The cell potential can be predicted through the use of electrode potentials (the voltages of each half-cell). (See table of standard electrode potentials). The difference in voltage between electrode potentials gives a prediction for the potential measured.

Cell potentials have a possible range of about zero to 6 volts. Cells using water-based electrolytes are usually limited to cell potentials less than about 2.5 volts, because the very powerful oxidising and reducing agents which would be required to produce a higher cell potential tend to react with the water.

Cell types

See also

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