JCE Classroom Activity: #93
Modesto Tamez and Julie H. Yu*
Exploratorium Teacher Institute, 3601 Lyon St., San Francisco, CA 94123; *
In this Activity, students construct a simple battery rom aluminum oil, saltwater, and activated charcoal. Te battery can power a small motor or light.
Homemade batteries are an inexpensive, practical, and hands-on way to teach oxidation and reduction reactions. A popularbattery can be made out o a lemon and two metal electrodes, but a single lemon cell rarely produces enough current to power an actual device
Students must construct several cells in series or monitor readings on a multimeter in order to visualize battery perormance
A simple aluminum–air battery can generate 1 V and 100 mA, which is enough powerto run a small electrical device or light. While the voltage is comparable to a traditional lemon cell, the current can be up to400 times greater than what is generated in a typical classroom activity
Tis battery relies on oxidation o aluminum atthe anode and reduction o oxygen at the cathode to generate electrical energy. A diagram o the battery and equations orthe hal and overall reactions are given below.Anode: Al(s) + 3OH
(s) + 3e
(g) + 2H
O(l) + 4e
(aq)Overall: 4Al(s) + 3O
(g) + 6H
(s)Aluminum oil provides an aordable supply o aluminum. Activated charcoal is usedat the cathode to increase the amount o oxygen that comes in contact with the battery.Activated charcoal is very porous and has a high surace area to mass ratio. Tis surace provides a large number o adsorption sites to which oxygen can bind and participate inthe cathode reaction.
Integrating the Activity into Your Curriculum
Tis Activity demonstrates oxidation and reduction reactions, which are integral parts o battery chemistry. Te use o atmospheric oxygen as the oxidizing agent has extensions to other redox reactions that occurin corrosion, metabolism, and combustion. In addition, the participation o oxygen as a reactant in the aluminum–air bat-tery can be used to introduce the concepts o uel cells and alternative energy sources. Photos o the aluminum–air battery procedure are online
as well as directions or a homemade saltwater battery
About the Activity
Students use non-toxic, readily available materials to construct a battery that can power an electrical device. Activatedcharcoal can be ound in pet and aquarium supply stores. Small electrical devices such as a 1.5–3 V dc motor (Radio Shack#273-223,
) are available at electronic stores. Te battery is also strong enough to power a holi-day light that has been cut rom the string and stripped to reveal its wire leads. Make sure the chosen device will producea noticeable change when connected to a 1 V power supply. I desired, students can also measure the voltage and current produced by their cell on a multimeter. Comparisons can be made to determine what aspects o the design contribute toimproved battery perormance.
Answers to Questions
1. In order or current to pass between the electrodes, there must be an electrolyte between them. Te salt provides ionsthat can move through the wet paper towel and transer charge.2. Tough there is plenty o oxygen in the air, it must be in contact with the carbon in order to react. Te increased suracearea allows more oxygen to participate in the reaction at the cathode. Tis improves the overall rate o reaction, whichresults in a greater number o electrons to ow per unit time and thus increases the current.3.
Te oxygen that reacts at the cathode is constantly replenished, just as reactants in a uel cell are. At the other electrode,aluminum is oxidized and slowly consumed. Afer enough use, this oxidation can be seen as corrosion o the Al surace.4. I the oil rom one cell is in contact with the oil rom the cell above it, the electrons will bypass the paper towel andactivated charcoal, moving directly into the second piece o oil, which has a lower resistance than the charcoal layer. Tiseectively shorts out the lower cell, which no longer contributes to the overall power output. Compare the power romthe stacked pile o cells when pieces o oil are touching versus when they are not.
References, Additional Related Activities, and Demonstrations
(accessed Sep 2007)
1. Swartling, Daniel J.; Morgan, Charlotte. Lemon Cells Revisited—Te Lemon-Powered Calculator.
J. Chem. Educ.
181–182.2. Muske, Kenneth R.; Nigh, Christopher W.; Weinstein, Randy D. A Lemon Cell Battery or High-Power Applications.
J. Chem. Educ.
635–638.3. Aluminum Air Battery.
4. Saltwater Battery.
Tis Activity is based on a demonstration to the Exploratorium by teachers rom the Galileo Workshop in Japan. JHY is supported by a National Science Foundation DiscoveryCorps Fellowship (CHE-0610238).
Pressing the electrode into theactivated charcoal generatesenough current to illuminate aholiday light.
T h i s C l a s s r o om A c t i vi t ym a y b er e pr o d u c e d f or u s ei nt h e s u b s c r i b er ’ s c l a s s r o om .
p e r f o r a t e d f o l d h e r e a n d t e a r o u t
JCE Classroom Activities
are edited by Erica K. Jacobsen and Julie Cunningham