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What Is an Electric Cell?

Vincent Summers
Vincent Summers

An electric cell is a simple device capable of delivering an electric current. One or more electric cells working together to deliver a current constitute a battery. The chemical reaction of an electric cell is categorized as "oxidation-reduction." Electrons are transferred, oxidizing one chemical species through electron removal, while reducing another by adding electrons. The reaction in an electric cell may sometimes be obviously chemical, as for the copper-zinc battery; in other cases, such as the solar cell, it may be less obvious.

Electric cells can find reverse application, as in the process of electroplating, whereby an external voltage is applied that transfers electrons in the reverse direction, resulting in the deposition of metal on substrates. Among the most common deposits are nickel, solder, chromium, copper, silver and gold. Interestingly, solar cells can have their action reversed. Instead of light impinging on their surfaces to produce electricity, current can be introduced that results in light emission, albeit at a different frequency, namely the infrared. This is the principle of the light-emitting diode or LED.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

One form of cell undergoing intense investigation is that of the fuel cell. This is especially because of the need for an alternative fuel to replace coal and petroleum. The fuel cell of greatest interest utilizes hydrogen as the fuel. Hydrogen burning in oxygen produces pure water, rather than greenhouse gases and other pollutants. A remaining difficulty is finding the correct electrolyte medium to allow the process to succeed.

There are other, more complex types of fuel cell. Among these are the molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC), the phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC), the proton exchange memory fuel cell (PEM) and solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC). At the current stage of development, all have serious shortcomings. Some require a very high degree of fuel purity, some require expensive platinum catalysis and one requires very high temperatures to function. All use hydrogen gas as the basic fuel.

In 1971, U.S. patent number 3,591,860, was granted for a nuclear industrial device called a gamma electric cell. This invention was designed to produce a high-output voltage directly from nuclear radiation. It is capable of doing so without first passing through a heat cycle. Since it can even produce electricity directly from radioactive isotopes, it is viewed as an alternative safe power source. Unfortunately the invention of the cell phone has been misattributed by some to the holder of the gamma electric cell patent.

Discussion Comments


@Charred - You can make your own battery if you want. I did it for a science project way back in school. It’s a lot easier than you think.

All you need is one lemon, copper wire and a galvanized nail. You should also get hold of a volt meter to measure the electric current.

All you have to do is stick the copper wire and nail into the lemon (make sure they don’t touch each other), and that’s it, you have a battery.

Both the wire and the nail act as different poles of the cell. Use the volt meter to touch a probe to each pole, and you’ll read some minor electric current on the meter.

It’s super easy, and so yes, I think in that sense the Babylon battery may well have been what it looked like, a battery and not just a glorified vase.


@Charred - Yeah, I’ve heard of that discovery. Personally, I am more fascinated by the prospects of hydrogen fuel cells.

I think that hydrogen batteries for automobiles represent the wave of the future for meeting our energy needs. The only problem currently with fuel cells is that they require a lot of hardware to work properly.

In order to fit a fuel cell onto a car, you need large tanks that will hold the fuel; so large, in fact, that it would not be practical by any modern measure.

However, I think that this limitation will be overcome. Hydrogen cells would deliver totally clean energy, and could completely free us from our dependence on foreign oil.


I remember watching a documentary about the Babylon battery or Baghdad battery as it’s also called. This thing was a copper pot that had an iron rod and a copper disc.

When activated, it delivered an electric charge. The copper discs I suppose were the electric cells, although I don’t recall the exact details.

The Babylon battery has been and continues to be a marvel of the ancient world. If anything, it proves that the basic scientific principles behind our modern day electronics can be demonstrated with the most primitive of materials.

There are some skeptics today who insist that this thing was not actually a battery, but a glorified vase of some sort. I hardly think that a vase would need an iron rod and copper plates at the end, however.

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      Scientist with beakers