Alessandro Volta

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Alessandro Volta : biography

18 February 1745 – 5 March 1827

In 1800 as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Galvani, he invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, which produced a steady electric current. Volta had determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was zinc and silver. Initially he experimented with individual cells in series, each cell being a wine goblet filled with brine into which the two dissimilar electrodes were dipped. The voltaic pile replaced the goblets with cardboard soaked in brine.

Publications

De vi attractiva ignis electrici (1769) (On the attractive force of electric fire)

Religious beliefs

Volta was raised as a Christian and for all of his life continued to maintain a strong faith and to attend church.

First battery

In announcing his discovery of his voltaic pile, Volta paid tribute to the influences of William Nicholson, Tiberius Cavallo, and Abraham Bennet.

The battery made by Volta is credited as the first electrochemical cell. It consists of two electrodes: one made of zinc, the other of copper. The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water or a form of saltwater brine. The electrolyte exists in the form 2H+ and SO42−. The zinc, which is higher than both copper and hydrogen in the electrochemical series, reacts with the negatively charged sulfate (SO42−). The positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) capture electrons from the copper, forming bubbles of hydrogen gas, H2. This makes the zinc rod the negative electrode and the copper rod the positive electrode.

Thus, there are two terminals, and an electric current will flow if they are connected. The chemical reactions in this voltaic cell are as follows:

zinc
Zn → Zn2+ + 2e−
sulfuric acid
2H+ + 2e− → H2

The copper does not react, but rather it functions as an electrode for the electric current.

However, this cell also has some disadvantages. It is unsafe to handle, since sulfuric acid, even if dilute, is dangerous to human beings. Also, the power of the cell diminishes over time because the hydrogen gas is not released. Instead, it accumulates on the surface of the zinc electrode and forms a barrier between the metal and the electrolyte solution.