Electrochemical cells, such as the cell illustrated in Figure 1.1, lie at the heart of electrochemical systems. A typical electrochemical cell consists of two electrodes: an anode where oxidation occurs and a cathode where reduction takes place. Electrons move through an external circuit via an electronic conductor that connects the anode and cathode. The liquid solution that is between the two electrodes is the electrolyte. The electrolyte does not conduct electrons and does not contain any free electrons. It does, however, contain a mixture of negatively charged ions (anions) and positively charged ions (cations). These ions are free to move, which allows them to carry current in the electrolyte.Copper ions in solution accept two electrons from the metal and form solid copper. The reaction is described as heterogeneous because it takes place at the electrode surface rather than in the bulk solution; remember, there are no free electrons in the solution. Importantly, then, we see that electrochemical reactions are surface reactions. The metal that accepts or supplies electrons is the electrode. As written, copper ions gain electrons and therefore are reduced to form copper metal. When reduction occurs, the electrode is called the cathode.In the same cell, the reaction that takes place on the other electrode is(1.2) The zinc metal is oxidized, giving up two electrons and forming zinc ions in solution. When oxidation occurs at the surface, the electrode is called the anode.Both the copper and zinc reactions written above (Equations 1.1 and 1.2) are half-cell reactions, meaning that they describe a reaction that takes place at one of the electrodes. Half-cell reactions always have electrons as either a reactant or a product. Also, charge is always balanced in half-cell reactions. Charge balance means that the net charge on one side of the equation must equal the net charge on the other side of the equation. For example, in the above equation, the net charge on the Zn (left side of the equation) is zero. This value is equal to the net charge for the other side, which is (+2) + 2(−1) = 0. Charge balance is no surprise since electrochemical reactions simply add or remove electrons.The cell illustrated in Figure 1.1 is called a Daniell cell and is named after John Frederic Daniell, who invented the cell in 1836. In this cell, the electrodes themselves (solid Zn and Cu) participate in the electrochemical reactions as either a reactant or a product. This is not always the case, as we shall see later. The electrons for the reduction of Cu2+ come from the other electrode where the oxidation of Zn takes place. The electrons that are liberated from zinc oxidation at the anode travel through an external circuit to participate in the reduction reaction at the cathode. The movement of electrons corresponds to an electrical current flowing through the external circuit. The anode and cathode reactions can be combined to give an overall cell reaction, also called the full-cell reaction. Note that there are no electrons in the overall reaction, but charge is still balanced.(1.3) In other words, the exact number of electrons released from oxidation is used for reduction. Similarly, for each copper ion that is reduced, one zinc ion is formed. Because there is a production of charge at the anode and a consumption of charge at the cathode, there is a net movement of charge in solution from the anode to the cathode. Thus, there is also a current flowing in the solution, but the net charge in the solution is unchanged.The flow of current in an electrochemical cell is shown in Figure 1.1. Note that, by definition, current in the external circuit is opposite (cathode to anode) to the direction that electrons flow. As illustrated in the figure, current flows counterclockwise in a continuous circuit that includes the solution and the external circuit. The electrochemical reactions are the means by which current flows from the electrode to the solution (anode) and from the solution to the electrode (cathode) as part of this circuit. These reactions will not take place if the circuit is broken. This circuit is most commonly “broken” by disconnecting the external connection between the electrodes. In the absence of this external connection, the cell is at open circuit, and there is no net reaction at either electrode. Finally, we note that the name “electrochemical” refers to the fact that the chemical changes are connected to the flow of electric current. Some of the additional aspects of electrochemical reactions are discussed in the next section.
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