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Electrolytic and Galvanic Cell

In an electrolytic cell, people use electrical energy to drive a non-spontaneous chemical reaction. Picture this: imagine you have a solution of sulfuric acid and two metal electrodes—copper (Cu) and zinc (Zn). By applying an external electric current, the copper electrode gains electrons and undergoes reduction, while the zinc electrode loses electrons and experiences oxidation. This process allows for the conversion of electrical energy into chemical potential energy.

On the other hand, a galvanic cell operates in reverse. It harnesses spontaneous redox reactions to generate electrical energy. A classic example involves the voltaic cell, which consists of two half-cells: one immersing a copper electrode in a copper sulfate solution (CuSO4), and the other submerging a zinc electrode in a zinc sulfate solution (ZnSO4). Electrons flow from the zinc electrode to the copper electrode through an external circuit, generating electricity.

Definition of Electrolytic Cells

An electrolytic cell is a type of electrochemical cell that uses an external power source to drive a non-spontaneous chemical reaction. Unlike galvanic cells, which produce electrical energy from spontaneous reactions, electrolytic cells require an input of electrical energy to initiate and sustain the reaction.

In an electrolytic cell, two electrodes are immersed in an electrolyte solution, which contains ions that can conduct electricity. The two electrodes are typically made of different materials and serve distinct purposes in the process. The cathode attracts positively charged ions (cations), while the anode attracts negatively charged ions (anions).

The main purpose of an electrolytic cell is to facilitate chemical reactions that would not occur spontaneously under normal conditions. By applying an external voltage or current, the electrolytic cell forces these non-spontaneous reactions to take place.

Electrolytic Cells: How They Work

To understand how electrolytic cells work, let’s consider a simple example: the electrolysis of water. In this process, water molecules (H2O) are split into hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen gas (O2). Without the application of electrical energy, this reaction does not occur naturally.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The cathode (negative electrode) in the electrolyte solution connects to the positive terminal of the power source. The anode (positive electrode) links to the negative terminal.

  2. When the power source activates, electrons flow from the cathode to the anode through the external circuit.

  3. At the cathode, electrons gain hydrogen ions (H+) from water molecules, reducing them to form hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, at the anode, electrons are lost by hydroxide ions (OH-) from water molecules, oxidizing them to form oxygen gas.

  4. The outcome is the breakdown of water molecules into their constituent elements, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Pros and Cons of Electrolytic Cells

Like any other technology, electrolytic cells have their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at some of them:


  • Electrolytic cells allow for the production of valuable substances that cannot be obtained through spontaneous reactions.

  • They are crucial in industrial processes such as electroplating, metal refining, and the production of chemicals like chlorine and sodium hydroxide.

  • Electrolysis can also be used to store energy in the form of hydrogen gas, which can later be utilized as a fuel source.


  • Electrolytic cells require an external power source, which means they consume electrical energy.

  • The process can be slow and inefficient due to factors such as resistance in the electrolyte solution or electrode degradation over time.

  • Some electrolytes used in these cells can be corrosive or toxic, requiring careful handling and disposal.

Definition of Galvanic Cells

Galvanic cells are devices that generate electrical energy through spontaneous redox reactions. Unlike electrolytic cells that require an external power source, galvanic cells harness the chemical energy of a redox reaction to produce electricity.

In a galvanic cell, there are two half-cells connected by a salt bridge or porous barrier. Each half-cell consists of an electrode immersed in an electrolyte solution. The oxidation reaction occurs at the anode, while the reduction reaction takes place at the cathode.

The primary purpose of a galvanic cell is to convert chemical energy into electrical energy. As electrons flow from the anode to the cathode through an external circuit, they create a continuous flow of current. This flow of electrons can be harnessed to power various devices and systems.

Galvanic Cells: Pros and Cons

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages associated with galvanic cells:


  • Spontaneous energy generation: Galvanic cells utilize spontaneous redox reactions to produce electrical energy without requiring any external power source.

  • Portable and self-contained: Galvanic cells can be designed as compact and portable devices, making them suitable for applications where mobility is essential.

  • Environmentally friendly: Since galvanic cells rely on chemical reactions rather than burning fossil fuels, they produce minimal pollution and contribute less to environmental degradation.

  • Long-lasting power supply: Depending on the reactants used in the cell, galvanic cells can provide a steady source of electrical energy for extended periods.


  • The reactants in a galvanic cell get depleted over time, reducing its ability to generate electricity effectively, leading to a limited lifespan. Eventually, these cells will need replacement or recharging.

  • Lower power output: Compared to other sources of electrical energy like batteries or fuel cells, galvanic cells typically have lower power outputs.

  • Specific reactant requirements: Galvanic cells require specific reactants to facilitate the redox reactions. This restricts their versatility and adaptability in certain applications.

  • Inability to reverse the reaction: Unlike electrolytic cells, galvanic cells cannot be reversed to regenerate the reactants. Once the cell’s reactants are depleted, it needs to be replaced or recharged.

Examples of Galvanic Cells

Galvanic cells find applications in various fields. Here are a few examples:

  1. Alkaline Batteries: These common household batteries utilize a galvanic cell design to power portable electronic devices like remote controls and flashlights.

  2. Fuel Cells: Fuel cells employ galvanic cell principles to convert chemical energy from fuels like hydrogen into electrical energy, making them suitable for clean energy applications.

  3. Voltaic Piles: The voltaic pile, invented by Alessandro Volta, is an early example of a galvanic cell that paved the way for modern battery technology.

Key Differences Between Electrolytic and Galvanic Cells

Understanding these differences will give you a clearer picture of how these two types of cells operate.

External Power Source vs. Spontaneous Flow

The first major difference lies in the source of power for each type of cell. Electrolytic cells require an external power source, such as a battery or electrical outlet, to drive the chemical reactions. On the other hand, galvanic cells are self-sustaining and do not require an external power source.

In an electrolytic cell, electrons flow from the external power source to the electrode where reduction occurs (cathode), while oxidation takes place at the other electrode (anode). This flow of electrons is driven by the external power source. In contrast, galvanic cells have spontaneous electron flow between electrodes without the need for an external power source.

Driving Non-Spontaneous Reactions vs. Harnessing Spontaneous Reactions

Another significant difference between electrolytic and galvanic cells is their purpose in driving chemical reactions. People design electrolytic cells to drive non-spontaneous reactions that would not naturally occur on their own. By applying an external voltage through the power source, electrolysis can take place and force these non-spontaneous reactions to occur.

Galvanic cells, on the other hand, harness spontaneous reactions that occur naturally due to a difference in reactivity between two metals or substances. These reactions generate electrical energy that can be used to perform work.

Examples in Everyday Life

To better understand these differences, let’s consider some examples from everyday life:

  • In electroplating processes, people commonly use an electrolytic cell to deposit a thin layer of metal onto another material surface. The process necessitates an external power source to drive the non-spontaneous metal deposition reaction.

    A flashlight contains a galvanic cell where the chemical reactions between the battery’s electrodes and electrolyte generate an electric current that powers the light bulb.

    The spontaneous flow of electrons generates the energy needed to illuminate the flashlight.

Electrolytic Cells: Cathode and Anode

In an electrolytic cell, an external power source connects the cathode to the negative terminal, and the anode to the positive terminal. The cathode attracts positively charged ions from the electrolyte solution, causing reduction reactions to take place at its surface. On the other hand, oxidation reactions occur at the anode as negatively charged ions migrate towards it.

Galvanic Cells: Positive Cell Potential

Galvanic cells operate without any external power source. The electrode connected to the positive terminal is called the cathode, where reduction reactions occur. Meanwhile, oxidation occurs at the electrode connected to the negative terminal, known as the anode.

Impact on Cell Performance

The choice of electrode material can influence various aspects of cell performance:

  1. Electrode Potentials: Different materials have different electrode potentials, which determine their tendency to undergo oxidation or reduction reactions. For example, copper has a lower tendency to oxidize compared to zinc.

  2. Conductivity: Electrode materials should possess high electrical conductivity to facilitate efficient electron flow within the cell.

  3. Chemical Reactivity: Some materials may react with components in the electrolyte solution or undergo corrosion over time.

  4. Surface Area: Increasing electrode surface area allows for more contact between reactants and enhances reaction rates.

  5. Durability: Electrodes should be durable enough to withstand prolonged use without significant degradation.

Examples of Electrode Materials

Let’s take a look at some common electrode materials used in electrolytic and galvanic cells:

  • Graphite: Widely used in electrolytic cells due to its high conductivity and chemical stability.

  • Platinum: Often used as the cathode material in galvanic cells due to its resistance to corrosion and high catalytic activity.

  • Zinc: Frequently employed as the anode material in galvanic cells, especially in batteries, owing to its ability to readily undergo oxidation reactions.

The choice of electrode material depends on the specific requirements of the cell, such as desired reaction rates, cost considerations, and compatibility with the electrolyte solution.

Role of Hydrogen Electrode and Half Reactions

In electrochemical cells, the hydrogen electrode plays a crucial role as a reference electrode. It establishes a standard potential against which other electrodes are measured. Half reactions involving either oxidation or reduction provide valuable insights into electron transfer during cell operation.

The hydrogen electrode serves as a benchmark for measuring the potential difference between different electrodes in an electrochemical cell. It consists of a platinum electrode immersed in an acidic solution with hydrogen gas bubbling through it. The reaction occurring at this electrode is the reduction of protons (H+) to form hydrogen gas (H2). This process sets up a standard potential known as the standard hydrogen electrode (SHE) potential.

On the other hand, half reactions involve either oxidation or reduction processes at specific electrodes within the cell. These reactions provide detailed information about electron transfer during cell operation and help determine the overall redox reactions taking place. For example, in an electrolytic cell where water undergoes electrolysis to produce hydrogen and oxygen gas, two half reactions occur.

  1. At the cathode: 2H+ + 2e- → H2

  • Protons from the solution gain electrons at the cathode.

  • This reduction half reaction results in the formation of hydrogen gas.

  1. At the anode: 2H2O → O2 + 4H+ + 4e-

  • Water molecules at the anode lose electrons.

  • This oxidation half reaction leads to the production of oxygen gas along with protons.

These half reactions show how electrons transfer from one electrode to another within an electrochemical cell.

Understanding these half reactions is essential for determining factors such as cell voltage, current flow, and energy conversion efficiency within electrochemical systems. Examining each individual process separately enables scientists to better understand how chemical species transform and generate electric currents.


Can I use an electrolytic cell as a battery?

No, electrolytic cells are not designed to function as batteries. Unlike galvanic cells which produce electricity spontaneously from chemical reactions, electrolytic cells require an external power source to drive non-spontaneous reactions. People commonly use them for processes such as electroplating or splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gases.

Are galvanic cells rechargeable?

In general, galvanic cells are not rechargeable. Once a spontaneous chemical reaction consumes and converts the reactants into products, generating electricity, the cell ceases to produce current. Rechargeable variations of galvanic cells, like lead-acid or lithium-ion batteries, allow for the reversal of chemical reactions using an external power source.

Which type of cell is more efficient?

The efficiency of a cell depends on various factors such as its design, materials used, and specific application. In terms of energy conversion, galvanic cells tend to be more efficient; they directly convert chemical energy into electrical energy. On the other hand, electrolytic cells require an external power source and additional energy input to drive non-spontaneous reactions, making them less efficient in terms of overall energy conversion.

Can I use any conductive electrode in an electrolytic cell?

In most cases, you can use a wide range of conductive electrodes in an electrolytic cell. Common choices include graphite (carbon), platinum, or even certain metals depending on the specific reaction conditions. The choice of electrode material depends on factors such as reactivity with the electrolyte and desired electrochemical properties.

How do I determine the direction of electron flow in a galvanic cell?

In a galvanic cell, electrons flow from the anode (where oxidation occurs) to the cathode (where reduction occurs). Remember the mnemonic “An Ox” – Anode Oxidation – to help you recall this relationship. Electron flow harnessed for various applications generates a current, powering electronic devices, or storing electrical energy.

Shazzy Sheraz

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