Friday, February 18, 2011


Here, each of the reactant is taken in a separate container in contact with a rod/sheet of a metallic-conductor (electronic conductor) called an electrode. Electrical contact between the two reactants is established by placing a conducting salt bridge in-between.

Fig: 9.2 - Experimental set up for an indirect redox reaction

The species capable of losing electrons transfers them to the electrode placed in it. This makes the metallic conductor or electrode negatively charged due to the accumulation of electrons. On the other hand, the species capable of gaining electrons accepts them from the metallic conductor (electrode) placed in it. As a result this metallic conductor electrode) gets positively charged due to the deficiency of electrons. When a metallic wire connects the two electrodes, the electrons flow from the negatively charged electrode to the positively charged electrode. Thus, in an indirect redox reaction, electrons flow in a particular direction through an external conducting wire connecting the two electrodes.

This flow of electrons generates electricity, which can be used for doing some useful work.

Thus, in an indirect redox reaction, the decrease in the chemical energy is liberated in the form of electrical energy.

An electrochemical reaction differs from a chemical reaction in the following respects.

Chemical reaction Electrochemical reaction
Electron transfer from one species to another takes place directly in the same medium. Electron transfer from one species to another takes place indirectly through electrodes.
Energy is liberated in the form of heat, light and sound. Energy is liberated in the form electrical energy.
The chemical reaction is instantaneous proceeding at a finite rate. This reaction takes place only on the application of electricity.
Redox reactions take place in the same medium. Redox reaction takes place separately at the Anode and cathode surface.

Electrochemical cell

Spontaneous redox reactions are the metal displacement reactions. Therefore such reactions have been used for producing electricity. This is done by carrying out these reactions in specially designed units called electrochemical cells.

An electrochemical cell is a device used to convert chemical energy of an indirect redox reaction into electrical energy. This is also called Voltaic cell or a Galvanic cell. It is set up by dipping two electrodes (conducting rods) into the same or two different electrolytes. No reaction takes place inside the cell until a conducting wire joins the two electrodes.
  electrochemical cell with one and two electrodes
Fig: 9.3 - An electrochemical cell (a) one electrolyte (b) two electrolytes

A typical metal displacement reaction is the reaction between zinc metal and copper sulphate solution i.e.,

reaction between zinc metal and copper sulphate solution

The electrochemical cell based on this reaction is set up as follows.

Zinc sulphate solution is taken in a beaker and a zinc rod is dipped in to it. Similarly copper sulphate solution is taken in another beaker and a copper strip is dipped in to it. An inverted U tube containing concentrated solutions of inert electrolytes such as KCl, KNO3 etc., connects the two solutions. The two openings of the U tube are plugged with porous materials like glass wool or cotton. This U tube is called as salt bridge as it acts like a bridge connecting the solutions of the two beakers. In place of salt bridge, one can also use either a paper strip, unglazed porcelain or clay porous pot or asbestos fibre for developing electrical contact between the two half-cells. When a key is inserted to complete the outer circuit, the following observations are made.
  • There is a flow of electrical current through the external circuit.
  • The zinc rod loses weight, while the copper rod acquires weight.
  • The concentration of ZnSO4 solution increases, while that of CuSO4 solution decreases.
  • The two solutions in the beakers have electrical neutrality.

The above indications clearly show the overall reaction to be:

Zinc is oxidized to Zn2+ ions and go into the solution during the reaction.

The electrons released at the electrode move towards the other electrode through the outer circuit. These electrons are accepted by Cu2+ ions of CuSO4 solution. Thus the Cu2+ ions are reduced to metallic copper, which get deposited on the copper electrode.

With the onset of the chemical reaction, the zinc plate begins to dissolve and loses weight, electrons get generated and move and finally, the copper plate gains weight. Therefore, this indirect redox reaction is accompanied by the liberation of energy in terms of electric charge, which is the electrical energy. In this way the chemical reaction leads to the production of electrical energy that further helps in doing useful work (deposition of copper metal).

Electrochemical cell based on redox reaction of zinc and  copper sulphate

Fig: 9.4 - Electrochemical cell based on redox reaction of zinc and copper sulphate

Salt Bridge and Its Function

A salt bridge is a low resistance device, which establishes an electrical contact between two electrolytes not in direct contact. This is used to overcome the direct liquid-liquid junction that leads to intermixing. The salt bridge consists of a glass U-tube filled with KCl containing Agar-Agar paste, which sets into a gel. The choice of the electrolyte added to the gel depends upon the nature of the electrolytes used in the cell. However these electrolytes are inert for they should not react chemically or undergo any electrochemical reactions with the electrolytes electrically connected with them. Commonly used salts are, KCl, NH4NO3, KNO3, or K2SO4. The KCl-bridge cannot be used when any salt of lead, or silver is used in the cell because lead chloride and silver chloride are insoluble in water.

Functions of a Salt Bridge

  • When in a galvanic cell two solutions are kept in separate containers, an electrical contact between the two is needed to complete the circuit. A salt bridge completes the circuit by allowing the migration of anions from one container into the salt bridge and from the salt bridge into the other container.
  • The salt bridge prevents the physical transference/diffusion of the electrolytes from one container to the other.
  • A salt bridge helps in maintaining the charge balance in the reactions taking place at the two containers by releasing counter ions into the solution. Other wise due to the accumulation of the respective charges in the two containers there will be no flow of electrons and the cell will stop functioning.
  • A direct liquid-liquid junction is thermodynamically unstable state. The unequal rates of migration of the cations and anions across a liquid-liquid junction give rise to a potential difference across the junction. This potential difference across the liquid-liquid junction is called liquid junction potential. A salt bridge eliminates a direct contact between the two solutions, and thus minimizes the liquid junction potential.


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