In chemistry and manufacturing, electrolysis is a technique that uses direct electric current (DC) to drive an otherwise non-spontaneous chemical reaction. Electrolysis is commercially 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.
In the early nineteenth century, William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle sought to further Volta's experiments. They attached two wires to either side of Volta's battery and placed the other ends in a tube filled with water. They noticed when the wires were brought together that each wire produced bubbles. One type was hydrogen, the other was oxygen.
In 1817 Johan August Arfwedson determined there was another element, lithium, in some of his samples, however, he could not isolate the component. It was not until 1821 when William Thomas Brande used electrolysis to single it out. Two years later, he streamlined the process using lithium chloride and potassium chloride with electrolysis to produce lithium and lithium hydroxide.
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. Historically, when non-reactive anodes were desired for electrolysis, graphite (called plumbago in Faraday's time) or platinum were chosen. They were found to be some of the least reactive materials for anodes. Platinum erodes very slowly compared to other materials, and graphite crumbles and can produce carbon dioxide in aqueous solutions but otherwise does not participate in the reaction. Cathodes may be made of the same material, or they may be made from a more reactive one since anode wear is greater due to oxidation at the anode.
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 effectively introduced at the cathode as a reactant and removed at the anode as a product. In chemistry, the loss of electrons is called oxidation, while electron gain is called reduction.
The voltage at which electrolysis is thermodynamically preferred is the difference of the electrode potentials as calculated using the Nernst equation. Applying additional voltage, referred to as overpotential, can increase the rate of reaction and is often needed above the thermodynamic value. It is especially necessary for electrolysis reactions involving gases, such as oxygen, hydrogen or chlorine.
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.
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.