Friday, 3 August 2012

More on Electrolysis

Note: This post is mainly for Single Science although it could be good background information for Double Award anyway. :)

SS 1.53 describe simple experiments for the electrolysis, using inert electrodes, of aqueous solutions of sodium chloride, copper (II) sulfate and dilute sulfuric acid and predict the products

So, electrolysis can be used to decompose molten compounds as described in an earlier post on Electrolysis: 

However, for Single Science, you also need to know about electrolysis of compounds in aqueous solutions. Predicting the reactions and working out the products for aqueous solutions are less straightforward than for molten compounds. 

An aqueous solution of a compound is a mixture of two electrolytes, it's a compound dissolved in water really (so water is the solvent). For example, an aqueous solution of copper (II) sulphate contains two electrolytes: copper (II) sulphate and water. It therefore contains copper (II) sulphate ions (Cu2+) and sulphate ions (SO42-), and also small amounts of hydrogen ions (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-) from the dissociation of water molecules.
H2O (l) à H+(aq) + OH-(aq)

These ions compete with the ions from copper (II) sulphate for discharge at the electrodes. 

In general, when an aqueous solution of an ionic compound is electrolysed, a metal or hydrogen is produced at the cathode. At the anode, a non-metal, for example oxygen or a halogen, is given off. 

Let's see if this is the case in the electrolysis of dilute sodium chloride solution. 

Electrolysis of Dilute Sodium Chloride Solution
Note: There is a difference in the products between the electrolysis of dilute sodium chloride solution and concentrated sodium chloride solution. I will elaborate later.

An aqueous solution of sodium chloride contains four different types of ions. They are
  • Ions from sodium chloride – Na+ (aq) and Cl- (aq)
  • Ions from water – H+ (aq) and OH- (aq)

When dilute sodium chloride solution is electrolysed using inert electrodes, the Naand Hions are attracted to the cathode. The Cland OHions are attracted to the anode. 

At the cathode: 
The Hand Na+ ions are attracted to the platinum cathode. Hions gains electrons from the cathode to form hydrogen gas. (The hydrogen ions accept electrons more readily than the sodium ions. As a result, Hions are discharged as hydrogen gas, which bubbles off. I will explain why Hions are preferentially discharged later.)
2H+(aq) + 2e- à H2(g)
Na+ ions remain in solution. 

At the anode:
OH- and Clare attracted to the platinum anode. OHions give up electrons to the anode to form water and oxygen gas. 
4OH-(aq) à 2H2O(l) + O2(g) + 4e-
Clions remain in solution. 

The overall reaction is: 
  2H2O(l)   à 2H2(g) + O2(g)

Since water is being removed (by decomposition into hydrogen and oxygen), the concentration of sodium chloride solution increases gradually. The overall reaction shows that the electrolysis of dilute sodium chloride solution is equivalent to the electrolysis of water.

Another important thing to note is that twice as much hydrogen is produced as oxygen. This is because for every 4 electrons that flows around the circuit, you would get one molecule of oxygen. But four electrons would produce 2 molecules of hydrogen. Hence in a diagram, you would see the volume of hydrogen produced is twice that of oxygen. Refer to the equations above and note the number of electrons involved to help you understand. 

This diagram is just to illustrate how twice as much hydrogen gas is produced. 

Electrolysis of Concentrated Sodium Chloride Solution
The only difference is that at the anode, Cl-  ions are more numerous than OHions. Consequently, Clions are discharged as chlorine gas, which bubbles off. 

2Cl- (aq) à Cl2(g) + 2e-
The OHions remain in solution.   

One volume of hydrogen gas is given off at the cathode and one volume of chlorine gas is produced at the anode. The resulting solution becomes alkaline because there are more OHthan Hions left in the solution.    

Compare the electrolysis of molten sodium chloride, dilute sodium chloride solution and concentrated sodium chloride solution:

Molten sodium chloride:
  • Cathode: Na+ ions discharged
  • Anode: Cl- discharged
Dilute NaCl solution: 
  • Cathode: H+ ions discharged
  • Anode: OH- discharged

Concentrated NaCl solution:
  • Cathode: H+ discharged
  • Anode: Cl- discharged
So you can see that Naand Clions are not always discharged even though in all 3 of the above, the electrolytes contained these ions. For example in the electrolysis of dilute NaCl solution, Hare discharged in preference to Naions. OH- ions are discharged in preference to Clions. Before I talk about the electrolysis of copper(II) sulfate and dilute sulfuric acid, I will discuss why one type of cation (or anion) in the electrolyte is more readily discharged than another type. If you already know this, just scroll right down. :)

Note: Most of the following is taken from a G.C.E. 'O' Level textbook, but I find it useful. :) 
Reactivity Series and Selective Discharge of Ions
In electrolysis, when more than one type of cation or anion is present in a solution, only one cation and one anion are preferentially discharged. This is known as the selective discharge of ions. 

How do you predict which ions are discharged in the electrolysis of a compound in aqueous solution?
If inert electrodes are used during electrolysis, the ions discharged and hence the products formed depend on three factors:
  1. The position of the metal (producing the cation) in the reactivity series. 
  2. The relative ease of discharge of an anion. 
  3. The concentration of the anion in the electrolyte. 
The ease of discharge of cations and anions during electrolysis is shown below.


NB: Ease of discharge increases as you go down the table
Potassium ion, K+
Chloride ion, Cl-
Sodium ion, Na+
Bromide ion, Br-
Calcium ion, Ca2+
Iodide ion, I-
Magnesium ion, Mg2+
Hydroxide ion, OH-
Zinc ion, Zn2+

Note: sulphate ions (SO42-) and nitrate ions (NO3-) will not be discharged during electrolysis.
Iron ion, Fe2+
Lead ion, Pb2+
Hydrogen ion, H+
Copper ion, Cu2+
Silver ion, Ag+

Selective discharge of cations during electrolysis
The cations of an element lower in the reactivity series are discharged at the cathode in preference to cations above it in the solution. This is because cations of a less reactive element accept electrons more readily. For example, if a solution containing Naand Hions is electrolysed,  Hions are discharged in preference to Naions. The more reactive the metal, the more stable its compound. They have lost a lot of energy and have lost electrons to form stable cations, so cations lower down the reactivity series are more readily discharged.

Selective discharge of anions during electrolysis
Sulphate (SO42-) and nitrate (NO3-) ions remain in the solution and are not discharged during electrolysis. If a solution containing SO42-NO3and hydroxide (OH-) ions is electrolysed, the OHions will be discharged in preference to SO42- and NO3ions. The OHions give up electrons most readily during electrolysis to form water and oxygen.
4OH- (aq) à 2H2O (l) + O2 (g) + 4e-  

Effect of concentration on selective discharge of anions
An increase in the concentration of an anion tends to promote its discharge. For example, in the electrolysis of concentrated sodium chloride solution, two types of ions are attracted to the anode: Cland OHions. According to their relative ease of discharge, OHions should be discharged preferentially. However, in concentrated sodium chloride solution,  Clions are far more numerous than OHions and so are discharged at the anode instead. 

2Cl- (aq) à Cl2 (g) + 2e-

What are the general rules for predicting selective discharge?
The following rules can be applied when predicting the products of electrolysis of any aqueous solution (using inert electrodes):

Rule 1
Identify the cations and anions in the electrolysis. Remember that an aqueous solution also contains H+ and OH- ions from the dissociation of water molecules.
Rule 2
At the anode, the product of electrolysis is always oxygen unless the electrolyte contains a high concentration of the anions, Cl-, Br­- or I- ions.
Rule 3
At the cathode, reactive metals such as sodium and potassium are never produced during electrolysis of the aqueous solution. If the cations come from a metal above hydrogen in the reactivity series, then hydrogen will be liberated (liberate=release). If the cations come from a metal below hydrogen, then the metal itself will be deposited.
Rule 4
Identify the cations and anions that remain in the solution after electrolysis. They form the product remaining in solution. Summarise the reactions.

For example, in the electrolysis of dilute sodium chloride solution, Na+ and Cl- ions remain in solution after H+ and OH- ions have been discharged. Hence the solution of sodium chloride becomes more concentrated after electrolysis.

Electrolysis of Copper (II) sulphate solution
Copper (II) sulphate solution can be electrolysed using inert platinum electrodes. (Sometimes inert carbon electrodes in the form of graphite are used.)

During electrolysis, the cathode is coated with a layer of reddish-brown solid copper. The blue colour of the solution fades gradually as more copper is deposited. The resulting electrolyte also becomes increasingly acidic.

An aqueous solution of copper (II) sulphate contains four types of ions:

  • Ions from copper (II) sulphate: Cu2+ and SO42-
  • Ions from water: Hand OH-

At the anode:
OHions and SO42- ions are attracted to the anode. OHions give up electrons more readily than SO42- ions. Consequently, OHions are preferentially discharged to give oxygen gas.

4OH- (aq) à 2H2O (l) + O2 (g) + 4e-

The SO4ions remain in solution. 

At the cathode:
Hions and Cu2+ ions are attracted to the cathode. Copper is lower than hydrogen in the reactivity series. Cu2+ ions accept electrons more readily than Hions. As a result, Cu2+ ions are preferentially discharged as copper metal (atoms). 
Cu2+ (aq) + 2e- à Cu (s)
The Hions remain in solution. 

When aqueous copper (II) sulphate is electrolysed using platinum electrodes, copper metal is deposited at the cathode and oxygen gas is given off at the anode. The overall reaction is:
2CuSO4 (aq) + 2H2O (l) à 2Cu (s) + O2 (g) + 2H2SO4 (aq)

Electrolysis of dilute sulfuric acid solution
Inert carbon or platinum electrodes are used.
At the cathode:
In this case, the only positive ions arrive at the cathode are the hydrogen ions from the acid and the water. (Adding acid to water forces it to split up/hydrolyse.) These are discharged to give hydrogen gas.

2H+ (aq) + 2e- à H2 (g)

At the anode:
At the anode, SO42- ions  and OHions (from the water) accumulate. OHions are discharged to give O2 gas. 
4OH- (aq) à 2H2O (l) + O2 (g) + 4e-

The amount of hydrogen produced is twice that of oxygen. Just like in the electrolysis of dilute sodium chloride solution.  For every 4 e- that flows around the circuit, you would get one molecule of O2 . But four electrons would produce 2 molecules of H2


  1. Hello,

    I found this blog/post amazingly accurate to the iGCSE syllabus. I understand you might be very busy with your IB studies, but will you be able to do something similar for your IB syllabuses? It would help a lot as I will be moving to IB too! I hope you see this :S! Anyways, if you aren't able to, it is okay as you have already helped me a lot with this post! Thank you very much!

    1. Hey there, I'm glad you found this blog helpful but I'm afraid IB is too much for me to be handling IB blogs as well. I'm really sorry, I would do if there was time but... :/
      Good luck with your IGCSEs anyways though!! :)

    2. hey, thank you so much, this blog is great help! I have my IGCSE exam tomorrow paper 6.
      can you make a blog for IB when your done with the IB? Like some tips and tricks or something, cause you really explain well!

    3. Good luck for your exam! Haha I would but I'm actually selling my IB notes to help with uni costs etc. if you'd be interested in buying any I'd be grateful! if not, thanks for the nice comment and I'm glad you found this useful!! :)

    4. Useful..... Easier than my boring TB..

  2. hello,
    michelle thanx alot 4 ur efforts 2morrow is my exam n i m prepearing 4m ur blog n bes of luck 4 ur IB

  3. Thank you so much for this! My teacher never really taught us electrolysis properly so this has saved my revision :)

  4. thanks a lot, i havent found this in my book and your blog really helped a lot... can you please make a book of your own for A level IGCSE

  5. My hat is off to you, Michelle. Valuable information and excellent clarity you got here! I find your explanations very helpful. Thanks for sharing...

  6. thanks for this so much, chem would be my favorite. this was real helpful, originally came here just to see about hydrogen being produced, but i was pleasantly surprised! you should be proud of your blog! got igcse chemistry paper 3 tommorow hahah so thanks !

    1. Thank you very much for your nice comment, good luck for that paper, hope you ace it!! :) :)

  7. thanks, michelle you are doing a great job but i need one more please.describe hydrogen derived from water or hydrocarbons,as a potential fuel for use in future,reacting with oxygn to generate electrictydirectly in fuel cell(details of the constructonand operation of a fuel cell are not required)

  8. Hi, nice to meet you. I want to ask you why concentration effect on electrolysis only suitable for the anions ( halide ) only? If concentrated NaCl solution is used as an electrolyte in electrolysis, why Na+ ions won't discharge like Cl- ? If Na+ ions are far more numerous than H+ ions , so why still H+ discharged? I am sorry that my English is not very good and I hope you can understand what I am asking you . Thank you very much :)

    1. Because H+ comes at last or second last in discharge series and sodium come at starting of the series.

  9. This is so excellent and simple to understand. Big job!!!!

  10. This was really helpful but I am still confused about the discharging of ions in concentrated and dilute NaCl :( please help me

  11. Thanks I finally understand the concept of preferential discharge

  12. why sodium, potassium and calcium are not selectively discharged when the electrolyte is a concentrated solution??

  13. why flouride, sulphate and nitrate ions are not selectively discharged when the electrolyte is a concentrated solution??

  14. this was great help. In class I didn't know what I was doing, but actually learn something from this blog. :)

  15. Your blogs really great ! It's easier to understand with your detailed explanation! Thanx :)

  16. Great post! Thank you for sharing. Hope to hear more from you.

  17. just super explanations....

  18. Hello;
    Could you please tell me that how much minimum voltage is required for electrolysis of dilute sodium chloride solution??

  19. why nitrate ion do not react at anode

  20. This is a great post and really helpful for me. wonderful work. Don't forget to update...

  21. Hey I HAVE A QUESTION !!! ( very important one )
    Why do anions containing hydrogen and oxygen are called hydroxide instead of following the -ate rule ?
    Thank you.

  22. I understand that the cations move towards the cathode, but does that mean that they are initially formed at the anode?

  23. Hey thank you so much I have my Chemistry final 2 days from now and this did me alot!!! Although this helped me but if anyone has simplified notes with examples, would you please send it to my email asap???

  24. Amazing, its such a helpful blog. Do you write more for chemistry?

  25. Nice blog ... very well written.
    There is exam help (full solutions to CIE IGCSE past papers) in the Solved Past Exams site ( Some people may find that useful.


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Note: This blog will no longer be updated as I finished IGCSEs in 2012. Sorry! :( If you are interested in buying IB notes though, please contact me. :)