What is Electrolysis? - Definition, Process & Facts

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:33 How Does Electrolysis Work?
  • 2:37 Key Facts
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

Did you know electrolysis is able to facilitate the decomposition of substances? In this lesson, you'll learn more about the process of electrolysis, after which, you can test your own expertise on the subject with a short quiz.


Have you ever heard of the term copper ore? What about iron ore? Ore deposits found deep within our earth contain a wide variety of metals and minerals highly valued by both the trade and manufacturing industries. The metals copper and iron are separated from ore deposits. Now, you may be wondering, how can you extract a metal, like copper, from a rock like ore? Great question! The answer is by using a fascinating process called electrolysis.

Electrolysis is the chemical process of using an electrical current to stimulate non-spontaneous reactions. A non-spontaneous reaction is one that needs energy to work while it proceeds. In other words, the process would not happen on its own, as it goes in an unfavorable, or a reversed, direction.

Important uses include its role in separating metals from a natural source, such as our friend the copper ore. Other useful benefits for electrolysis include the purification of metals and decomposition of compounds like water.

The site where electrolysis occurs is in an electrolytic cell, which is a type of electrochemical cell that drives an electrical current using a non-spontaneous reaction. So, not like a cell in your body, but a container. Thus, these cells must have an energy source to drive the reaction in the reverse or opposite direction, like a battery. Be careful not to confuse an electrolytic cell with electrolysis. Always remember that the electrolysis process is performed using an electrolytic cell.

How Does Electrolysis Work?

We can understand the process of electrolysis by looking at an example involving the purification of a copper metal. This process will require an anode, a positively charged electrode, and a cathode, a negatively charged electrode. In this case, an impure copper metal is the anode, while the pure copper metal is the cathode. The goal is to use electrolysis for the purpose of recycling a dirty old piece of copper pipe, or impure copper, to a beautiful, purified copper pipe.

Electrolysis Diagram

The copper sulfate electrolyte, or solution, ensures there is a liquid medium conducive for ion movement inside the cell (a). When copper ions leave the impure copper pipe through the help of an energy supply, they migrate from the anode (b) to the cathode (c). After reaching the cathode, they collect the electrons needed to form a neutral, or no charge, copper metal. These neutral copper metal atoms gather on the pure copper cathode (d). The leftover impurities from the anode, or the ones not traveling to the cathode to be purified, collect at the bottom of the cell.

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