Teaching The Chemistry of Electricity

As a fan of the Walking Dead, I often wonder what would happen if something catastrophic happened, and suddenly our power grids became non-functional. Would anyone happen to know how to generate power from chemicals using engineering or chemistry? For this reason and many more that are tied to teaching chemistry, I decided to explore electrochemistry and how the principles therein spawned batteries.

There is a lot there to explore – from electron behavior and their organization, all the way to redox reactions –  so we started the lab by talking about ions in general. A classic intro to electrochemistry experiments is to connect graphite plates to a battery and place them in various solutions to hydrolyze water. We talked about how the battery sends energy onto the graphite plates allowing water to be split into its individual elements, namely hydrogen and oxygen gas, which can be spotted by the bubbles produced. The students then compared the bubbling in a number of different solutions, both ionic and covalent. It was pretty easy to see that only the ionic salts were able to produce any significant amount of bubbling and thus had some kind of impact on the water. This led into a discussion of charge and the “ionization” of molecules in solution and of course, ionic bonds.

 

The last step I had them do was to connect their Daniell cells to a voltmeter so they could measure the voltage moving across the plates. I also asked them to switch the electrodes to see how the voltage changed so they could think about positive and negative voltages and its ties to whether or not a voltage can be generated spontaneously vs. non-spontaneously.

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Lots of good opportunities for practicing observational skills

The question of reaction spontaneity had been bandied about in a few other experiments, and this one was a part of an overall narrative on what makes a chemical reaction go. This is a question that the students ask me all the time. Normally this takes the form of feverish, excited questions about which combinations of chemicals would create the largest explosion, e.g “WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF YOU COMBINE SULFURIC ACID AND HYDROCHLORIC ACID!?!?” (Answer: Not much…unless you add water or a base). We did a separate set of experiments that looked at various ionic solutions and their reactions with solid zinc in order to further demonstrate the nature of reaction spontaneity. This also led into a discussion of the activity series, a subject that was also broached in our Daniell cell experiments.

This set of experiments in electrochemistry represented over 2 months and well over 30 classroom hours. It got students thinking about a number of different chemical phenomenon, and all of them came out of these experiments with a general understanding of some or all of the following concepts: electrons, their orbitals, metals, reduction potentials, electricity, redox reactions, reaction spontaneity, and the activity series, all to varying degrees. In general, this provided a great introduction to many concepts that the students will explore more in high school. As an added bonus, if a zombie attack wipes out our power grids, they will have a basic knowledge of how to generate voltages using common materials!

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