Electrolysis Made Easy(ish)

Some STEM Learning trainee teachers, looking very keen!

Back in November last year (was it really that long ago??) I wrote a blog post about water, in which I described a simple at-home version of electrolysis. I didn’t think much of it at the time, beyond the fact that it was oddly exciting to do this experiment—that usually involves power-packs and wires and all sorts of other laboratory stuff—with just a 9V battery, a tic tac box and some drawing pins.

Then, hey, what do you know, someone actually read my ramblings! Not only that, read them and thought: let’s try this. And so it was that Louise Herbert, from STEM Learning (that’s their Twitter, here’s their website), contacted me last month and asked if I’d mind if they used the Chronicle Flask as a source for a STEM learning course on practical work.

Of course not, I said, and please send me some pictures!

And they did, and you can see them scattered through this post. But let’s have a quick look at the chemistry…

Electrolysis is the process of splitting up compounds with electricity. Specifically, ionic compounds: the positively-charged ion in the compound travels to the negative electrode, and the negatively-charged ion moves to the positive electrode.

Water is a covalent compound with the formula H2O, but it does split into ions.

Only… wait a minute… water isn’t ionic, is it? So… why does it work on water? Er. Well. Water does split up into ions, a bit. Not very much under standard conditions, but a bit, so that water does contain very small amounts of OH and H+ ions. (In fact, I can tell you exactly how many H+ ions there are at room temperature, it’s 1×10-7 mol dm-3, and, in an astonishing chemistry plot twist, that 7 you see there is why pure water has a pH of, yep, 7.)

So, in theory you can electrolyse water, because it contains ions. And I’ve more than once waved my hands and left it at that, particularly up to GCSE level (age 16 in the U.K.) because, although it’s a bit of a questionable explanation, (more in a minute), electrolysis is tricky and sometimes there’s something to be said for not pushing students so far that their brains start to dribble out of their ears. (As the saying goes, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”)

Chemists write half equations to show what the electrons are doing in these sorts of reactions and, in very simple terms, we can imagine that at the positive electrode (also called the anode) the OH ions lose electrons to form oxygen and water, like so:

4OH —> 2H2O + O2 + 4e

And conversely, at the negative electrode (also called the cathode), the H+ ions gain electrons to form hydrogen gas, like so:

2H+ + 2e —> H2

These equations balance in terms of species and charges. They make the point that negative ions move to the anode and positive ions move to the cathode. They match our observation that oxygen and hydrogen gases form. Fine.

Except that the experiment, like this, doesn’t work very well (not with simple equipment, anyway), because pure water is a poor electrical conductor. Yes, popular media holds that a toaster in the bath is certain death due to electrocution, but this is because bathwater isn’t pure water. It’s all the salts in the water, from sweat or bath products or… whatever… that do the conducting.

My original experiment, using water containing a small amount of sodium hydrogen carbonate.

To make the process work, we can throw in a bit of acid (source of H+ ions) or alkali (source of OH ions), which improves the conductivity, and et voilà, hydrogen gas forms at the cathode and oxygen gas forms at the anode. Lovely. When I set up my original 9V battery experiment, I added baking soda (sodium hydrogencarbonate), and it worked beautifully.

But now, we start to run into trouble with those equations. Because if you, say, throw an excess of H+ ions into water, they “mop up” most of the available OH ions:

H+ + OH —> H2O

…so where are we going to get 4OH from for the anode half equation? It’s a similar, if slightly less extreme, problem if you add excess alkali: now there’s very little H+.

Um. So. The simple half equations are… a bit of a fib (even, very probably, if you use a pH neutral source of ions such as sodium sulfate, as the STEM Learning team did — see below).

What’s the truth? When there’s plenty of H+ present, what’s almost certainly happening at the anode is water splitting into oxygen and more hydrogen ions:
2H2O —>  + O2 + 4H+ + 4e

while the cathode reaction is the same as before:
2H+ + 2e —> H2

Simple enough, really, but means we use the “negative ions are going to the positive electrode” thing, which is tricky for GCSE students, who haven’t yet encountered standard electrode potentials, to get their heads around, and this is why (I think) textbooks often go with the OH-reacts-at-the-anode explanation.

Likewise, in the presence of excess alkali, the half equations are probably:

Anode: 4OH —> 2H2O + O2 + 4e
Cathode: 2H2O + 2e —> H2 + OH

This time there is plenty of OH, but very little H+, so it’s the cathode half equation that’s different.

Taking a break from equations for a moment, there are some practical issues with this experiment. One is the drawing pins. Chemists usually use graphite or platinum electrodes in electrolysis experiments because they’re inert. But good quality samples of both are also (a) more difficult and more expensive to get hold of and (b) trickier to push through a tic tac box. (There are examples of people doing electrolysis with pencil “leads” online, such as this one — but the graphite in pencils is mixed with other compounds, notably clay, and it’s prone to cracks, so I imagine this works less often and less well than these photos suggest.)

A different version of the experiment…

Drawing pins, on the other hand, are made of metal, and will contain at least one of zinc, copper or iron, all of which could get involved in chemical reactions during the experiment.

When I did mine, I thought I was probably seeing iron(III) hydroxide forming, based, mainly, on the brownish precipitate which looked fairly typical of that compound. One of Louise’s team suggested there might be a zinc displacement reaction occurring, which would make sense if the drawing pins are galvanized. Zinc hydroxide is quite insoluble, so you’d expect a white precipitate. Either way, the formation of a solid around the anode quickly starts to interfere with the production of oxygen gas, so you want to make your observations quickly and you probably won’t collect enough oxygen to carry out a reliable gas test.

In one of their experiments the STEM Learning team added bromothymol blue indicator (Edit: no, they didn’t, oops, see below) to the water and used sodium sulfate as (a pH neutral) source of ions. Bromothymol blue is sensitive to slight pH changes around pH 7: it’s yellow below pH 6 and blue above pH 7.6. If you look closely at the photo you can see that the solution around the anode (on the right in the photo above, I think *squint*) does look slightly yellow-ish green, suggesting a slightly lower pH… but… there’s not much in it. This could make sense. The balanced-for-H+ half equations would suggest that, actually, there’s H+ sloshing around both electrodes (being formed at one, used up at the other), but we’re forming more around the anode, so we’d expect it to have the slightly lower pH.

The blue colour does, unfortunately, look a bit like copper sulfate solution, which might be confusing for students who struggle to keep these experiments straight in their heads at the best of times. One to save for A level classes, perhaps.

(After I published this, Louise clarified that the experiment in the photo is, in fact, copper sulfate. Ooops. Yes, folks, it looks like copper sulfate because it is copper sulfate. But I thought I’d leave the paragraph above for now since it’s still an interesting discussion!)

The other practical issue is that you need a lot of tic tac boxes, which means that someone has to eat a lot of tic tacs. There might be worse problems to have. I daresay “your homework is to eat a box of tic tacs and bring me the empty box” would actually be quite popular.

So, there we are. There’s a lot of potential (haha, sorry) here: you could easily put together multiple class sets of this for a few pounds—the biggest cost is going to be a bulk order of 9V batteries, which you can buy for less than £1 each—and it uses small quantities of innocuous chemicals, so it’s pretty safe. Students could even have their own experiment and not have to work in groups of threes or more, battling with dodgy wires and trippy power-packs (we’ve all been there).

Why not give it a try? And if you do, send me photos!


Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2019 (photos courtesy of STEM Learning UK and Louise Herbert). You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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6 thoughts on “Electrolysis Made Easy(ish)

  1. When I was a kid I did electrolysis at home but in a much more brutal way. I used a saucepan as one electrode, half filled it with tap water, then lowered a large spoon into it as the other electrode. The resulting light display and considerable production of gases was amazing, plus the water began steaming quite quickly. Have you guessed yet? I was using the 240V AC mains…
    Regards
    Clive

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I suggested that we could use it as a new means of boiling water for the tea, but my dad said I was a maniac and made me take it apart 😦 but then he bought me an industrial chemistry set 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great read on basic electrochemistry!

    This is probably the one experiment that everyone who studies chemistry should do (and understand) at least once.

    I’ve done it as a kid with classical pencils. More recently I even did it in a real lab set up to test a published reaction, and it worked! It was a similar set up, but I used very thick leads for “lead holders” as electrodes, and there was no apparent erosion of the electrodes.

    As a kid, I always used as electrolyte sodium chloride. It’s easy to get. If I remember properly you can even smell a bit some Cl2 being formed.

    Cheers, and happy new year Kat!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, NaCl works, but I’m wary of it because, like you say, it produces chlorine gas. Not enough to be toxic, but it could enough to irritate lungs, especially if someone is susceptible (asthmatic, say). Best saved for a controlled environment (i.e. a teaching lab). Sodium bicarbonate works just as well, is just as easy to get, and only produces oxygen and hydrogen.

      Like

  4. Pingback: The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2019 | the chronicle flask

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