A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism/Part II/Chapter IV



Electrolytic Conduction.

255.] I have already stated that when an electric current in any part of its circuit passes through certain compound substances called Electrolytes, the passage of the current is accompanied by a certain chemical process called Electrolysis, in which the substance is resolved into two components called Ions, of which one, called the Anion, or the electronegative component, appears at the Anode, or place where the current enters the electrolyte, and the other, called the Cation, appears at the Cathode, or the place where the current leaves the electrolyte.

The complete investigation of Electrolysis belongs quite as much to Chemistry as to Electricity. We shall consider it from an electrical point of view, without discussing its application to the theory of the constitution of chemical compounds.

Of all electrical phenomena electrolysis appears the most likely to furnish us with a real insight into the true nature of the electric current, because we find currents of ordinary matter and currents of electricity forming essential parts of the same phenomenon.

It is probably for this very reason that, in the present imperfectly formed state of our ideas about electricity, the theories of electrolysis are so unsatisfactory.

The fundamental law of electrolysis, which was established by Faraday, and confirmed by the experiments of Beetz, Hittorf, and others down to the present time, is as follows:—

The number of electrochemical equivalents of an electrolyte which are decomposed by the passage of an electric current during a given time is equal to the number of units of electricity which are transferred by the current in the same time.

The electrochemical equivalent of a substance is that quantity of the substance which is electrolysed by a unit current passing through the substance for a unit of time, or, in other words, by the passage of a unit of electricity. When the unit of electricity is defined in absolute measure the absolute value of the electrochemical equivalent of each substance can be determined in grains or in grammes.

The electrochemical equivalents of different substances are proportional to their ordinary chemical equivalents. The ordinary chemical equivalents, however, are the mere numerical ratios in which the substances combine, whereas the electrochemical equivalents are quantities of matter of a determinate magnitude, depending on the definition of the unit of electricity.

Every electrolyte consists of two components, which, during the electrolysis, appear where the current enters and leaves the electrolyte, and nowhere else. Hence, if we conceive a surface described within the substance of the electrolyte, the amount of electrolysis which takes place through this surface, as measured by the electrochemical equivalents of the components transferred across it in opposite directions, will be proportional to the total electric current through the surface.

The actual transfer of the ions through the substance of the electrolyte in opposite directions is therefore part of the phenomenon of the conduction of an electric current through an electrolyte. At every point of the electrolyte through which an electric current is passing there are also two opposite material currents of the anion and the cation, which have the same lines of flow with the electric current, and are proportional to it in magnitude.

It is therefore extremely natural to suppose that the currents of the ions are convection currents of electricity, and, in particular, that every molecule of the cation is charged with a certain fixed quantity of positive electricity, which is the same for the molecules of all cations, and that every molecule of the anion is charged with an equal quantity of negative electricity.

The opposite motion of the ions through the electrolyte would then be a complete physical representation of the electric current. We may compare this motion of the ions with the motion of gases and liquids through each other during the process of diffusion, there being this difference between the two processes, that, in diffusion, the different substances are only mixed together and the mixture is not homogeneous, whereas in electrolysis they are chemically combined and the electrolyte is homogeneous. In diffusion the determining cause of the motion of a substance in a given direction is a diminution of the quantity of that substance per unit of volume in that direction, whereas in electrolysis the motion of each ion is due to the electromotive force acting on the charged molecules.

256.] Clausius[1], who has bestowed much study on the theory of the molecular agitation of bodies, supposes that the molecules of all bodies are in a state of constant agitation, but that in solid bodies each molecule never passes beyond a certain distance from its original position, whereas in fluids a molecule, after moving a certain distance from its original position, is just as likely to move still farther from it as to move back again. Hence the molecules of a fluid apparently at rest are continually changing their positions, and passing irregularly from one part of the fluid to another. In a compound fluid he supposes that not only the compound molecules travel about in this way, but that, in the collisions which occur between the compound molecules, the molecules of which they are composed are often separated and change partners, so that the same individual atom is at one time associated with one atom of the opposite kind, and at another time with another. This process Clausius supposes to go on in the liquid at all times, but when an electromotive force acts on the liquid the motions of the molecules, which before were indifferently in all directions, are now influenced by the electromotive force, so that the positively charged molecules have a greater tendency towards the cathode than towards the anode, and the negatively charged molecules have a greater tendency to move in the opposite direction. Hence the molecules of the cation will during their intervals of freedom struggle towards the cathode, but will continually be checked in their course by pairing for a time with molecules of the anion, which are also struggling through the crowd, but in the opposite direction.

257.] This theory of Clausius enables us to understand how it is, that whereas the actual decomposition of an electrolyte requires an electromotive force of finite magnitude, the conduction of the current in the electrolyte obeys the law of Ohm, so that every electromotive force within the electrolyte, even the feeblest, produces a current of proportionate magnitude.

According to the theory of Clausius, the decomposition and recomposition of the electrolyte is continually going on even when there is no current, and the very feeblest electromotive force is sufficient to give this process a certain degree of direction, and so to produce the currents of the ions and the electric current, which is part of the same phenomenon. Within the electrolyte, however, the ions are never set free in finite quantity, and it is this liberation of the ions which requires a finite electromotive force. At the electrodes the ions accumulate, for the successive portions of the ions, as they arrive at the electrodes, instead of finding molecules of the opposite ion ready to combine with them, are forced into company with molecules of their own kind, with which they cannot combine. The electromotive force required to produce this effect is of finite magnitude, and forms an opposing electromotive force which produces a reversed current when other electromotive forces are removed. When this reversed electromotive force, owing to the accumulation of the ions at the electrode, is observed, the electrodes are said to be Polarized.

258.] One of the best methods of determining whether a body is or is not an electrolyte is to place it between platinum electrodes and to pass a current through it for some time, and then, disengaging the electrodes from the voltaic battery, and connecting them with a galvanometer, to observe whether a reverse current, due to polarization of the electrodes, passes through the galvanometer. Such a current, being due to accumulation of different substances on the two electrodes, is a proof that the substance has been electrolytically decomposed by the original current from the battery. This method can often be applied where it is difficult, by direct chemical methods, to detect the presence of the products of decomposition at the electrodes. See Art. 271.

259.] So far as we have gone the theory of electrolysis appears very satisfactory. It explains the electric current, the nature of which we do not understand, by means of the currents of the material components of the electrolyte, the motion of which, though not visible to the eye, is easily demonstrated. It gives a clear explanation, as Faraday has shewn, why an electrolyte which conducts in the liquid state is a non-conductor when solidified, for unless the molecules can pass from one part to another no electrolytic conduction can take place, so that the substance must be in a liquid state, either by fusion or by solution, in order to be a conductor.

But if we go on, and assume that the molecules of the ions within the electrolyte are actually charged with certain definite quantities of electricity, positive and negative, so that the electrolytic current is simply a current of convection, we find that this tempting hypothesis leads us into very difficult ground.

In the first place, we must assume that in every electrolyte each molecule of the cation, as it is liberated at the cathode, communicates to the cathode a charge of positive electricity, the amount of which is the same for every molecule, not only of that cation but of all other cations. In the same way each molecule of the anion when liberated, communicates to the anode a charge of negative electricity, the numerical magnitude of which is the same as that of the positive charge due to a molecule of a cation, but with sign reversed.

If, instead of a single molecule, we consider an assemblage of molecules, constituting an electrochemical equivalent of the ion, then the total charge of all the molecules is, as we have seen, one unit of electricity, positive or negative.

260.] We do not as yet know how many molecules there are in an electrochemical equivalent of any substance, but the molecular theory of chemistry, which is corroborated by many physical considerations, supposes that the number of molecules in an electrochemical equivalent is the same for all substances. We may therefore, in molecular speculations, assume that the number of molecules in an electrochemical equivalent is , a number unknown at present, but which we may hereafter find means to determine[2].

Each molecule, therefore, on being liberated from the state of combination, parts with a charge whose magnitude is , and is positive for the cation and negative for the anion. This definite quantity of electricity we shall call the molecular charge. If it were known it would be the most natural unit of electricity.

Hitherto we have only increased the precision of our ideas by exercising our imagination in tracing the electrification of molecules and the discharge of that electrification.

The liberation of the ions and the passage of positive electricity from the anode and into the cathode are simultaneous facts. The ions, when liberated, are not charged with electricity, hence, when they are in combination, they have the molecular charges as above described.

The electrification of a molecule, however, though easily spoken of, is not so easily conceived.

We know that if two metals are brought into contact at any point, the rest of their surfaces will be electrified, and if the metals are in the form of two plates separated by a narrow interval of air, the charge on each plate may become of considerable magnitude. Something like this may be supposed to occur when the two components of an electrolyte are in combination. Each pair of molecules may be supposed to touch at one point, and to have the rest of their surface charged with electricity due to the electromotive force of contact.

But to explain the phenomenon, we ought to shew why the charge thus produced on each molecule is of a fixed amount, and why, when a molecule of chlorine is combined with a molecule of zinc, the molecular charges are the same as when a molecule of chlorine is combined with a molecule of copper, although the electromotive force between chlorine and zinc is much greater than that between chlorine and copper. If the charging of the molecules is the effect of the electromotive force of contact, why should electromotive forces of different intensities produce exactly equal charges?

Suppose, however, that we leap over this difficulty by simply asserting the fact of the constant value of the molecular charge, and that we call this constant molecular charge, for convenience in description, one molecule of electricity.

This phrase, gross as it is, and out of harmony with the rest of this treatise, will enable us at least to state clearly what is known about electrolysis, and to appreciate the outstanding difficulties.

Every electrolyte must be considered as a binary compound of its anion and its cation. The anion or the cation or both may be compound bodies, so that a molecule of the anion or the cation may be formed by a number of molecules of simple bodies. A molecule of the anion and a molecule of the cation combined together form one molecule of the electrolyte.

In order to act as an anion in an electrolyte, the molecule which so acts must be charged with what we have called one molecule of negative electricity, and in order to act as a cation the molecule must be charged with one molecule of positive electricity.

These charges are connected with the molecules only when they are combined as anion and cation in the electrolyte.

When the molecules are electrolysed, they part with their charges to the electrodes, and appear as unelectrified bodies when set free from combination.

If the same molecule is capable of acting as a cation in one electrolyte and as an anion in another, and also of entering into compound bodies which are not electrolytes, then we must suppose that it receives a positive charge of electricity when it acts as a cation, a negative charge when it acts as an anion, and that it is without charge when it is not in an electrolyte.

Iodine, for instance, acts as an anion in the iodides of the metals and in hydriodic acid, but is said to act as a cation in the bromide of iodine.

This theory of molecular charges may serve as a method by which we may remember a good many facts about electrolysis. It is extremely improbable that when we come to understand the true nature of electrolysis we shall retain in any form the theory of molecular charges, for then we shall have obtained a secure basis on which to form a true theory of electric currents, and so become independent of these provisional theories.

261.] One of the most important steps in our knowledge of electrolysis has been the recognition of the secondary chemical processes which arise from the evolution of the ions at the electrodes.

In many cases the substances which are found at the electrodes are not the actual ions of the electrolysis, but the products of the action of these ions on the electrolyte.

Thus, when a solution of sulphate of soda is electrolysed by a current which also passes through dilute sulphuric acid, equal quantities of oxygen are given off at the anodes, and equal quantities of hydrogen at the cathodes, both in the sulphate of soda and in the dilute acid.

But if the electrolysis is conducted in suitable vessels, such as U-shaped tubes or vessels with a porous diaphragm, so that the substance surrounding each electrode can be examined separately, it is found that at the anode of the sulphate of soda there is an equivalent of sulphuric acid as well as an equivalent of oxygen, and at the cathode there is an equivalent of soda as well as two equivalents of hydrogen.

It would at first sight seem as if, according to the old theory of the constitution of salts, the sulphate of soda were electrolysed into its constituents sulphuric acid and soda, while the water of the solution is electrolysed at the same time into oxygen and hydrogen. But this explanation would involve the admission that the same current which passing through dilute sulphuric acid electrolyses one equivalent of water, when it passes through solution of sulphate of soda electrolyses one equivalent of the salt as well as one equivalent of the water, and this would be contrary to the law of electrochemical equivalents.

But if we suppose that the components of sulphate of soda are not SO₃ and NaO but SO₄ and Na,—not sulphuric acid and soda but sulphion and sodium—then the sulphion travels to the anode and is set free, but being unable to exist in a free state it breaks up into sulphuric acid and oxygen, one equivalent of each. At the same time the sodium is set free at the cathode, and there decomposes the water of the solution, forming one equivalent of soda and two of hydrogen.

In the dilute sulphuric acid the gases collected at the electrodes are the constituents of water, namely one volume of oxygen and two volumes of hydrogen. There is also an increase of sulphuric acid at the anode, but its amount is not equal to an equivalent.

It is doubtful whether pure water is an electrolyte or not. The greater the purity of the water, the greater the resistance to electrolytic conduction. The minutest traces of foreign matter are sufficient to produce a great diminution of the electrical resistance of water. The electric resistance of water as determined by different observers has values so different that we cannot consider it as a determined quantity. The purer the water the greater its resistance, and if we could obtain really pure water it is doubtful whether it would conduct at all.

As long as water was considered an electrolyte, and was, indeed, taken as the type of electrolytes, there was a strong reason for maintaining that it is a binary compound, and that two volumes of hydrogen are chemically equivalent to one volume of oxygen. If, however, we admit that water is not an electrolyte, we are free to suppose that equal volumes of oxygen and of hydrogen are chemically equivalent.

The dynamical theory of gases leads us to suppose that in perfect gases equal volumes always contain an equal number of molecules, and that the principal part of the specific heat, that, namely, which depends on the motion of agitation of the molecules among each other, is the same for equal numbers of molecules of all gases. Hence we are led to prefer a chemical system in which equal volumes of oxygen and of hydrogen are regarded as equivalent, and in which water is regarded as a compound of two equivalents of hydrogen and one of oxygen, and therefore probably not capable of direct electrolysis.

While electrolysis fully establishes the close relationship between electrical phenomena and those of chemical combination, the fact that every chemical compound is not an electrolyte shews that chemical combination is a process of a higher order of complexity than any purely electrical phenomenon. Thus the combinations of the metals with each other, though they are good conductors, and their components stand at different points of the scale of electrification by contact, are not, even when in a fluid state,, decomposed by the current. Most of the combinations of the substances which act as anions are not conductors, and therefore are not electrolytes. Besides these we have many compounds, containing the same components as electrolytes, but not in equivalent proportions, and these are also non-conductors, and therefore not electrolytes.

On the Conservation of Energy in Electrolysis.

262.] Consider any voltaic circuit consisting partly of a battery, partly of a wire, and partly of an electrolytic cell.

During the passage of unit of electricity through any section of the circuit, one electrochemical equivalent of each of the substances in the cells, whether voltaic or electrolytic, is electrolysed.

The amount of mechanical energy equivalent to any given chemical process can be ascertained by converting the whole energy due to the process into heat, and then expressing the heat in dynamical measure by multiplying the number of thermal units by Joule's mechanical equivalent of heat.

Where this direct method is not applicable, if we can estimate the heat given out by the substances taken first in the state before the process and then in the state after the process during their reduction to a final state, which is the same in both cases, then the thermal equivalent of the process is the difference of the two quantities of heat.

In the case in which the chemical action maintains a voltaic circuit, Joule found that the heat developed in the voltaic cells is less than that due to the chemical process within the cell, and that the remainder of the heat is developed in the connecting wire, or, when there is an electromagnetic engine in the circuit, part of the heat may be accounted for by the mechanical work of the engine.

For instance, if the electrodes of the voltaic cell are first connected by a short thick wire, and afterwards by a long thin wire, the heat developed in the cell for each grain of zinc dissolved is greater in the first case than the second, but the heat developed in the wire is greater in the second case than in the first. The sum of the heat developed in the cell and in the wire for each grain of zinc dissolved is the same in both cases. This has been established by Joule by direct experiment.

The ratio of the heat generated in the cell to that generated in the wire is that of the resistance of the cell to that of the wire, so that if the wire were made of sufficient resistance nearly the whole of the heat would be generated in the wire, and if it were made of sufficient conducting power nearly the whole of the heat would be generated in the cell.

Let the wire be made so as to have great resistance, then the heat generated in it is equal in dynamical measure to the product of the quantity of electricity which is transmitted, multiplied by the electromotive force under which it is made to pass through the wire.

263.] Now during the time in which an electrochemical equivalent of the substance in the cell undergoes the chemical process which gives rise to the current, one unit of electricity passes through the wire. Hence, the heat developed by the passage of one unit of electricity is in this case measured by the electromotive force. But this heat is that which one electrochemical equivalent of the substance generates, whether in the cell or in the wire, while undergoing the given chemical process.

Hence the following important theorem, first proved by Thomson (Phil. Mag. Dec. 1851):—

'The electromotive force of an electrochemical apparatus is in absolute measure equal to the mechanical equivalent of the chemical action on one electrochemical equivalent of the substance.'

The thermal equivalents of many chemical actions have been determined by Andrews, Hess, Favre and Silbermann, &c., and from these their mechanical equivalents can be deduced by multiplication by the mechanical equivalent of heat.

This theorem not only enables us to calculate from purely thermal data the electromotive force of different voltaic arrangements, and the electromotive force required to effect electrolysis in different cases, but affords the means of actually measuring chemical affinity.

It has long been known that chemical affinity, or the tendency which exists towards the going on of a certain chemical change, is stronger in some cases than in others, but no proper measure of this tendency could be made till it was shewn that this tendency in certain cases is exactly equivalent to a certain electromotive force, and can therefore be measured according to the very same principles used in the measurement of electromotive forces.

Chemical affinity being therefore, in certain cases, reduced to the form of a measurable quantity, the whole theory of chemical processes, of the rate at which they go on, of the displacement of one substance by another, &c., becomes much more intelligible than when chemical affinity was regarded as a quality sui generis, and irreducible to numerical measurement.

When the volume of the products of electrolysis is greater than that of the electrolyte, work is done during the electrolysis in overcoming the pressure. If the volume of an electrochemical equivalent of the electrolyte is increased by a volume v when electrolysed under a pressure p, then the work done during the passage of a unit of electricity in overcoming pressure is vp, and the electromotive force required for electrolysis must include a part equal to vp, which is spent in performing this mechanical work.

If the products of electrolysis are gases which, like oxygen and hydrogen, are much rarer than the electrolyte, and fulfil Boyle's law very exactly, vp will be very nearly constant for the same temperature, and the electromotive force required for electrolysis will not depend in any sensible degree on the pressure. Hence it has been found impossible to check the electrolytic decomposition of dilute sulphuric acid by confining the decomposed gases in a small space.

When the products of electrolysis are liquid or solid the quantity vp will increase as the pressure increases, so that if v is positive an increase of pressure will increase the electromotive force required for electrolysis.

In the same way, any other kind of work done during electrolysis will have an effect on the value of the electromotive force, as, for instance, if a vertical current passes between two zinc electrodes in a solution of sulphate of zinc a greater electromotive force will be required when the current in the solution flows upwards than when it flows downwards, for, in the first case, it carries zinc from the lower to the upper electrode, and in the second from the upper to the lower. The electromotive force required for this purpose is less than the millionth part of that of a Daniell's cell per foot.

  1. Pogg. Ann. bd. ci. s. 338 (1857).
  2. See note to Art. 5.