Chemistry can be an intimidating subject, but it’s all around you. You may see an area of chemistry in action every day, even if you don’t know its name. That’s certainly true of one of the science’s most threatening-sounding branches — electrochemistry.
The number of syllables in the word alone is enough to throw you off. While it may sound highly technical or confusing, though, you might be more familiar with it than you realize. Let’s take a closer look at this type of chemistry and some of its many applications.
The Intersection of Chemical Reactions and Electricity
As intimidating as it may sound, electrochemistry’s name tells you exactly what it is. It’s a branch of chemistry that deals with electricity. More specifically, it studies how electricity relates to chemical reactions, looking at how these processes move electrons. It’s a sort of blend between chemistry and physics.
This science deals a lot with processes called oxidation-reduction reactions or redox for short. Redox reactions happen when electrons transfer from one chemical or element to another, changing the atoms’ oxidation states. You can see these processes in everything from combustion to photosynthesis.
Michael Faraday, the most famous physical chemist in history, was an electrochemist specifically. If you know about Faraday cages, you’ve learned about this subcategory before.
Understanding Electrochemical Cells
One of the foundational concepts in electrochemistry is the idea of electrochemical cells. Electrochemical cells are devices that can either generate electricity from chemical reactions or vice versa. Most electrochemistry applications you’ll find in your daily life involve these cells.
Generally speaking, electrochemical cells have two half-cells, each with a different electrode, called the anode and cathode. Each electrode is in an electrolyte solution, which is different in each half-cell. When you complete the circuit, connecting both ends of the cell, it causes a redox reaction that generates electricity.
If that process sounds familiar, there’s a reason. You see and use electrochemical cells all the time in what’s probably the most common electrochemistry application — batteries.
Non-rechargeable batteries, like the kind you put in your TV remote, are a type of voltaic electrochemical cell. If you change a AA battery, you’ll notice a metal piece on each end of the battery compartment. When the metal ends of the AA touch these, you complete the cell’s circuit, generating electricity.
Other kinds of batteries are the product of electrochemical processes too. The lithium-ion batteries in your phone and laptop are a different kind of electrochemical cell, one that’s not voltaic. If you remember back when Samsung phones were catching fire, that was a malfunction that altered the redox reaction in the battery.
When you think about batteries, your mind probably doesn’t wander to chemistry. Without chemistry, though, you wouldn’t have them.
Electroplating & Elecropolishing
Another common electrochemistry application is the practice of electroplating. You might not have heard of this process before, but you’ve for sure seen it in action. Electroplating involves coating a surface in metal by using an electrical current.
You can use electroplating to change something’s appearance, but most of the time, people use it to make things more durable. As you could’ve guessed, covering something in a thin layer of metal helps protect it against the elements. You’ll see it a lot in jewelry and outdoor furniture.
Electropolishing is a finishing method that removes material from your components. Parts are attached to a positively charged metal bar and dipped into an electrolyte. The electrical current removes the ions and material from each part to achieve a smoother finish than traditional finishing techniques.
A lot of things in sanitation use electrochemistry, too, through a process called electrolysis. Electrolysis is the practice of using electricity to start a chemical reaction. A lot of manufacturers use this process to separate brine into sodium hydroxide and chlorine.
After they separate these chemicals, manufacturers use them in a variety of cleaning products. You’ll find chlorine in everything from antiseptics to disinfectants to water purification systems. Without electrolysis, getting your hands on these chemicals would be either more challenging or more expensive.
Like in batteries, you have to keep the two products of this kind of electrolysis separate. If they mix again after separation, they can form sodium chlorate, which you can find in bleach.
Electrochemistry Is Everywhere
You might not have heard of electrochemistry before reading this article, but you see it all the time. Like most sciences, it’s everywhere in life, in both the natural world and in the products you use every day. From electronics to cleaning chemicals, you can find real-world examples of electrochemical processes nearly everywhere you look.
It sounds like a complicated subject, but it’s not something you only see in labs and sci-fi movies. Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you know and have experienced these processes time and time again. Now you can finally put a name to it.