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This article is about the chemical process. For the cosmetic hair removal procedure, see Electrology.
Illustration of an electrolysis apparatus used in a school laboratory.

In chemistry and manufacturing, electrolysis is a technique that uses a direct electric current (DC) to drive an otherwise non-spontaneous chemical reaction. Electrolysis is commercially highly important as a stage in the separation of elements from naturally occurring sources such as ores using an electrolytic cell. The voltage that is needed for electrolysis to occur is called the decomposition potential.


The word electrolysis comes from the Greek ἤλεκτρον [ɛ̌ːlektron] "amber" and λύσις [lýsis] "dissolution".


Electrolysis is the passing of a direct electric current through an ionic substance that is either molten or dissolved in a suitable solvent, producing chemical reactions at the electrodes and separation of materials.

The main components required to achieve electrolysis are:

Electrodes of metal, graphite and semiconductor material are widely used. Choice of suitable electrode depends on chemical reactivity between the electrode and electrolyte and manufacturing cost.

Process of electrolysis[edit]

The key process of electrolysis is the interchange of atoms and ions by the removal or addition of electrons from the external circuit. The desired products of electrolysis are often in a different physical state from the electrolyte and can be removed by some physical processes. For example, in the electrolysis of brine to produce hydrogen and chlorine, the products are gaseous. These gaseous products bubble from the electrolyte and are collected.[3]

2 NaCl + 2 H2O → 2 NaOH + H2 + Cl2

A liquid containing mobile ions (electrolyte) is produced by:

An electrical potential is applied across a pair of electrodes immersed in the electrolyte.

Each electrode attracts ions that are of the opposite charge. Positively charged ions (cations) move towards the electron-providing (negative) cathode. Negatively charged ions (anions) move towards the electron-extracting (positive) anode.

In this process electrons are either absorbed or released. Neutral atoms gain or lose electrons and become charged ions that then pass into the electrolyte. The formation of uncharged atoms from ions is called discharging. When an ion gains or loses enough electrons to become uncharged (neutral) atoms, the newly formed atoms separate from the electrolyte. Positive metal ions like Cu++ deposit onto the cathode in a layer. The terms for this are electroplating electrowinning and electrorefining. When an ion gains or loses electrons without becoming neutral, its electronic charge is altered in the process. In chemistry the loss of electrons is called oxidation while electron gain is called reduction.

Oxidation and reduction at the electrodes[edit]

Oxidation of ions or neutral molecules occurs at the anode. For example, it is possible to oxidize ferrous ions to ferric ions at the anode:

→ Fe3+
+ e

Reduction of ions or neutral molecules occurs at the cathode.

It is possible to reduce ferricyanide ions to ferrocyanide ions at the cathode:

+ e → Fe(CN)4-

Neutral molecules can also react at either of the electrodes. For example: p-Benzoquinone can be reduced to hydroquinone at the cathode:

P-Benzochinon.svg + 2 e + 2 H+Hydrochinon2.svg

In the last example, H+ ions (hydrogen ions) also take part in the reaction, and are provided by an acid in the solution, or by the solvent itself (water, methanol etc.). Electrolysis reactions involving H+ ions are fairly common in acidic solutions. In aqueous alkaline solutions, reactions involving OH (hydroxide ions) are common.

Sometimes the solvents themselves (usually water) are oxidized or reduced at the electrodes. It is even possible to have electrolysis involving gases. (Such as when using a Gas diffusion electrode)

Energy changes during electrolysis[edit]

The amount of electrical energy that must be added equals the change in Gibbs free energy of the reaction plus the losses in the system. The losses can (in theory) be arbitrarily close to zero, so the maximum thermodynamic efficiency equals the enthalpy change divided by the free energy change of the reaction. In most cases, the electric input is larger than the enthalpy change of the reaction, so some energy is released in the form of heat. In some cases, for instance, in the electrolysis of steam into hydrogen and oxygen at high temperature, the opposite is true and heat energy is absorbed. This heat is absorbed from the surroundings, and the heating value of the produced hydrogen is higher than the electric input.

Related techniques[edit]

The following techniques are related to electrolysis:

  • Electrochemical cells, including the hydrogen fuel cell, use differences in Standard electrode potential to generate an electrical potential that provides useful power. Though related via the interaction of ions and electrodes, electrolysis and the operation of electrochemical cells are quite distinct. A chemical cell should not be thought of as performing electrolysis in reverse.

Faraday's laws of electrolysis[edit]

First law of electrolysis[edit]

In 1832, Michael Faraday reported that the quantity of elements separated by passing an electric current through a molten or dissolved salt is proportional to the quantity of electric charge passed through the circuit. This became the basis of the first law of electrolysis:

m = k . q


m = eQ

where; e is known as electrochemical equivalent of the metal deposited or of the gas liberated at the electrode.[4]

Second law of electrolysis[edit]

Faraday discovered that when the same amount of electricity is passed through different electrolytes/elements connected in series, the mass of substance liberated/deposited at the electrodes is directly proportional to their equivalent weights.

Industrial uses[edit]

Electrolysis has many other uses:

  • Production of oxygen for spacecraft and nuclear submarines.
  • Electroplating is used in layering metals to fortify them. Electroplating is used in many industries for functional or decorative purposes, as in vehicle bodies and nickel coins.
  • Production of hydrogen for fuel, using a cheap source of electrical energy.
  • Electrolytic etching of metal surfaces like tools or knives with a permanent mark or logo.

Electrolysis is also used in the cleaning and preservation of old artifacts. Because the process separates the non-metallic particles from the metallic ones, it is very useful for cleaning a wide variety of metallic objects, from old coins to even larger objects including rusted cast iron cylinder blocks and heads when rebuilding automobile engines. Rust removal from small iron or steel objects by electrolysis can be done in a home workshop using simple materials such as a plastic bucket, tap water, lengths of rebar, washing soda, baling wire, and a battery charger.[5]

Competing half-reactions in solution electrolysis[edit]

Using a cell containing inert platinum electrodes, electrolysis of aqueous solutions of some salts leads to reduction of the cations (e.g., metal deposition with, e.g., zinc salts) and oxidation of the anions (e.g. evolution of bromine with bromides). However, with salts of some metals (e.g. sodium) hydrogen is evolved at the cathode, and for salts containing some anions (e.g. sulfate SO42−) oxygen is evolved at the anode. In both cases this is due to water being reduced to form hydrogen or oxidized to form oxygen. In principle the voltage required to electrolyze a salt solution can be derived from the standard electrode potential for the reactions at the anode and cathode. The standard electrode potential is directly related to the Gibbs free energy, ΔG, for the reactions at each electrode and refers to an electrode with no current flowing. An extract from the table of standard electrode potentials is shown below.

Half-reaction (V) Ref.
Na+ + e is in equilibrium with Na(s) −2.71 [6]
Zn2+ + 2e is in equilibrium with Zn(s) −0.7618 [7]
2H+ + 2e is in equilibrium with H2(g) ≡ 0 [7]
Br2(aq) + 2e is in equilibrium with 2Br +1.0873 [7]
O2(g) + 4H+ + 4e is in equilibrium with 2H2O +1.23 [6]
Cl2(g) + 2e is in equilibrium with 2Cl +1.36 [6]
+ 2e is in equilibrium with 2SO2−
+2.07 [6]

In terms of electrolysis, this table should be interpreted as follows:

  • Oxidized species (often a cation) with a more negative cell potential are more difficult to reduce than oxidized species with a more positive cell potential. For example, it is more difficult to reduce a sodium ion to a sodium metal than it is to reduce a zinc ion to a zinc metal.
  • Reduced species (often an anion) with a more positive cell potential are more difficult to oxidize than reduced species with a more negative cell potential. For example, it is more difficult to oxidize sulfate anions than it is to oxidize bromide anions.

Using the Nernst equation the electrode potential can be calculated for a specific concentration of ions, temperature and the number of electrons involved. For pure water (pH 7):

  • the electrode potential for the reduction producing hydrogen is −0.41 V
  • the electrode potential for the oxidation producing oxygen is +0.82 V.

Comparable figures calculated in a similar way, for 1M zinc bromide, ZnBr2, are −0.76 V for the reduction to Zn metal and +1.10 V for the oxidation producing bromine. The conclusion from these figures is that hydrogen should be produced at the cathode and oxygen at the anode from the electrolysis of water—which is at variance with the experimental observation that zinc metal is deposited and bromine is produced.[8] The explanation is that these calculated potentials only indicate the thermodynamically preferred reaction. In practice many other factors have to be taken into account such as the kinetics of some of the reaction steps involved. These factors together mean that a higher potential is required for the reduction and oxidation of water than predicted, and these are termed overpotentials. Experimentally it is known that overpotentials depend on the design of the cell and the nature of the electrodes.

For the electrolysis of a neutral (pH 7) sodium chloride solution, the reduction of sodium ion is thermodynamically very difficult and water is reduced evolving hydrogen leaving hydroxide ions in solution. At the anode the oxidation of chlorine is observed rather than the oxidation of water since the overpotential for the oxidation of chloride to chlorine is lower than the overpotential for the oxidation of water to oxygen. The hydroxide ions and dissolved chlorine gas react further to form hypochlorous acid. The aqueous solutions resulting from this process is called electrolyzed water and is used as a disinfectant and cleaning agent.

Research trends[edit]

Electrolysis of carbon dioxide[edit]

The electrolysis of carbon dioxide gives formate or carbon monoxide, but sometimes more elaborate organic compounds such as ethylene.[9] This technology is under research as a carbon-neutral route to organic compounds.[10][11]

Electrolysis of water[edit]

Main article: Electrolysis of water

Electrolysis of water produces hydrogen.

2 H2O(l) → 2 H2(g) + O2(g); E0 = -1.229 V

The energy efficiency of water electrolysis varies widely. The efficiency of an electrolyser is a measure of the enthalpy contained in the hydrogen (to undergo combustion with oxygen, or some other later reaction), compared with the input electrical energy. Heat/enthalpy values for hydrogen are well published in science and engineering texts, as 144 MJ/kg. Note that fuel cells (not electrolysers) cannot utilise this full amount of heat/enthalpy, which has led to some confusion when calculating efficiency values for both types of technology. In the reaction, some energy is lost as heat. Some reports quote efficiencies between 50% and 70% for alkaline electrolysers; however, much higher practical efficiencies are available with the use of PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane electrolysis) and catalytic technology, such as 95% efficiency.[12][13]

NREL estimated that 1 kg of hydrogen (roughly equivalent to 3 kg, or 4 L, of petroleum in energy terms) could be produced by wind powered electrolysis for between $5.55 in the near term and $2.27 in the long term.[14]

About 4% of hydrogen gas produced worldwide is generated by electrolysis, and normally used onsite. Hydrogen is used for the creation of ammonia for fertilizer via the Haber process, and converting heavy petroleum sources to lighter fractions via hydrocracking.


A specialized application of electrolysis involves the growth of conductive crystals on one of the electrodes from oxidized or reduced species that are generated in situ. The technique has been used to obtain single crystals of low-dimensional electrical conductors, such as charge-transfer salts.[15][16]


Scientific pioneers of electrolysis include:

Pioneers of batteries:

More recently, electrolysis of heavy water was performed by Fleischmann and Pons in their famous experiment, resulting in anomalous heat generation and the discredited claim of cold fusion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Supplement (1803 edition) to Encyclopedia Britannica 3rd edition (1797), volume 1, page 225, "Mister Van Marum, by means of his great electrical machine, decomposed the calces of tin, zinc, and antimony, and resolved them into their respective metals and oxygen" and gives as a reference Journal de Physiques, 1785.
  2. ^ Sir William Crookes (1875). The Chemical news and journal of industrial science; with which is incorporated the "Chemical gazette.": A journal of practical chemistry in all its applications to pharmacy, arts and manufactures. Chemical news office. pp. 294–. Retrieved 27 February 2011. 
  3. ^ R. J. D. Tilley (2004). Understanding solids: the science of materials. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 281–. ISBN 978-0-470-85276-7. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  4. ^ Physical Chemistry for JEE and for other Engineering Examinations
  5. ^ "Rust Removal using Electrolysis". antique-engines.com. Retrieved April 1, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d Peter Atkins (1997). Physical Chemistry, 6th edition (W.H. Freeman and Company, New York).
  7. ^ a b c Vanýsek, Petr (2007). "Electrochemical Series", in Handbook of Chemistry and Physics: 88th Edition (Chemical Rubber Company).
  8. ^ A.E. Vogel, 1951, A textbook of Quantitative Inorganic Analysis, Longmans, Green and Co
  9. ^ Y. Hori, in Modern Aspects of Electrochemisty , ed. C. G. Vayeanas, R. White and M. E. Gamboa-Aldeco, Springer, New York, 2008, no. 42. pp. 141–153.
  10. ^ Appel, A. M. et al. "Frontiers, Opportunities, and Challenges in Biochemical and Chemical Catalysis of CO2 Fixation", Chem. Rev. 2013, vol. 113, 6621-6658. doi:10.1021/cr300463y
  11. ^ J. Qiao, et al., A review of catalysts for the electroreduction of carbon dioxide to produce low-carbon fuels, Chem.Soc.Rev., 2014, 43 , 631-675.
  12. ^ Carmo, M; Fritz D; Mergel J; Stolten D (2013). "A comprehensive review on PEM water electrolysis". Journal of Hydrogen Energy. doi:10.1016/j.ijhydene.2013.01.151. 
  13. ^ Werner Zittel; Reinhold Wurster (8 July 1996). "Chapter 3: Production of Hydrogen. Part 4: Production from electricity by means of electrolysis". HyWeb: Knowledge – Hydrogen in the Energy Sector. Ludwig-Bölkow-Systemtechnik GmbH. 
  14. ^ J. Levene; B. Kroposki, and G. Sverdrup (March 2006). "Wind Energy and Production of Hydrogen and Electricity – Opportunities for Renewable Hydrogen – Preprint" (PDF). National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Retrieved 20 October 2008. 
  15. ^ K. Bechgaard, K. Carneiro, F. B. Rasmusen, H. Olsen, G. Rindorf, C. S. Jacobsen, H. Pedersen, J. E. Scott (1981). "Superconductivity in an organic solid. Synthesis, structure, and conductivity of bis(tetramethyltetraselenafulvalenium) perchlorate, (TMTSF)2ClO4". Journal of the American Chemical Society 103 (9): 2440. doi:10.1021/ja00399a065. 
  16. ^ Williams, Jack M (2007). "Highly Conducting and Superconducting Synthetic Metals". Inorganic Syntheses 26: 386–394. doi:10.1002/9780470132579.ch70.