The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This article is about the chemical process. Electrolysis is also a method of epilation.

In chemistry and manufacturing, electrolysis is a method of separating bonded elements and compounds by passing an electric current through them.



The source material is dissolved in an appropriate solvent, or melted, so that constituent ions are available in the solution. An electrical potential is applied across a pair of conductors immersed in the liquid. The negatively charged conductor is called the cathode, and the positively charged conductor is called the anode. Each conductor attracts the ions of the opposite charge. Therefore, positively charged ions (cations) move towards the cathode while negatively charged ions (anions) move to the anode. The energy required to separate the ions, and increase their concentration at the electrodes, is provided by an electrical power supply that maintains the potential difference across the electrodes. At the electrodes, electrons are absorbed or released by the ions, forming concentrations of the desired element or compound. For example, when water is electrolyzed, hydrogen gas (H2) will form at the cathode, and oxygen gas (O2) at the anode. This was first discovered by William Nicholson, an English chemist, in 1800.

The amount of electric 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.)

The following technologies are related to electrolysis:


Scientific pioneers of electrolysis included:

More recently, electrolysis of heavy water was performed by Fleischmann and Pons in their famous experiment, 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 current 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.

Industrial uses

Domestic uses

Chlorine is extracted from sodium chloride brine by electrolysis. Chlorine is, among many things, used as a disinfectant and for bleaching.

Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46