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What is a Voltaic Cell?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 21, 2024
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A voltaic cell is a device made from connecting two different metals together and immersing the combined piece into some sort of fluid that creates a conductive atmosphere. The general purpose of a voltaic cell is to convert the chemical reaction between the metals and the fluid into an electrical charge. One of the most common examples is simply a battery, used to supply electrical power to devices not connected to a central grid power source.

The basic way a voltaic cell works is by utilizing the galvanic technique. A galvanic voltaic cell consists of two metals, such as copper and zinc, placed very close to each other. This unified piece is then covered in salt water, which causes the electrochemical reaction to occur. The key behind the reaction comes from the fact that the metal contains cations, ions with more protons than electrons. Cations react with the water, which contains anions, ions with more electrons than protons.

It is necessary to keep both metals separated by a small barrier. This is because one metal will cause the reduction of oxidation within the other, while the other metal increases oxidation. The reaction between both the cations and the anions creates an exchange of electrons and thereby, the creation of electricity.

When a number of these galvanic voltaic cells are placed in a series, it is referred to as a voltaic pile. Alternating the two metals with some sort of electrolyte barrier can create the electrochemical reaction. If the two ends of the voltaic pile are connected, an electrical current will be created, which can then be used to power other devices in the form of a battery.

One of the side effects of the voltaic reaction is corrosion. Due to the continued chemical reaction, the electron exchange ultimately causes the metals to degrade. This is why a battery eventually goes dead rather than lasting forever.

The use of the voltaic cell appears to date back to ancient times with the discovery of the Baghdad Battery in 1936, a series of galvanic cells placed in large jars from sometime in the first few centuries AD. However, it wasn't until the work of Luigi Galvani in the late 1700s that battery technology was modernized. Galvani found that by connecting copper and zinc together, he was able to make the muscles in a frog's leg spasm. Alessandro Volta took this information and adapted it to the voltaic pile in 1800.

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Discussion Comments
By anon972362 — On Oct 03, 2014

This needs to show the variables.

By miriam98 — On May 31, 2011

It’s my dream to own a smart house one day made of solar panels. I want to get completely “off the grid” and live a self-sustaining lifestyle, generating my own electricity and also growing my own gardens for food.

The other aspect about living off of solar energy which I like is that it’s totally clean energy, no carbon footprint or environmental residue. I think soon we’ll all be living this way.

By NathanG — On May 30, 2011

@nony - It would be called a voltaic solar cell in that case, and the basic principle is the same as you said. It’s called a photovoltaic cell because it converts light into electrical current.

It does this through cells of photovoltaic material that can accomplish this. Right now there are a number of different kinds of metals that have this property, but most commonly they use different forms of silicon.

By nony — On May 28, 2011

I take it from this description that a solar panel would not be considered a voltaic cell in the traditional sense. That is because there is no fluid which is used to deliver the current. Beyond that, I would think the basic electrical concepts would be the same.

By allenJo — On May 26, 2011

I saw a television program that showed this Babylonian or Baghdad voltaic cell battery. It was a pot with a sheet of copper and iron on top and some asphalt, supposedly delivering electric current. I was wondering myself if this was proof that the ancients had advanced technology or whether it could be used for something else.

They also had a skeptic on the show, who disputed the claim that it was actually a battery. He said that if it were actually a battery you would find other things like wires and things in abundance. I personally believe the basic concepts of electricity have been around much longer than what we’ve thought before.

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