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When a battery is “charged,” does that mean it has more electrons in it?

Draft #1 Presented by: Mylène Date: Nov 14, 2011 Proposed answer: No. A battery always has the same number of electrons in it: when one electron leaves the negative terminal, another one is absorbed at the positive terminal. The difference is that in a “charged” battery there is a chemical reaction making electrons gather at the negative terminal. In a “discharged” battery, the electrons are more evenly distributed between negative and positive terminals, and the chemicals that cause the reaction have all reacted and formed other compounds. From the Qualitative Reasoning Group, Northwestern University, Illinois: Note about technical terms: the terminal of the battery that electrons come out of is called the “anode”; the terminal that the electrons go into is called the “cathode” (See Figure 1). “The chemical reactions in the battery cause a build up of electrons at the anode. This results in an electrical difference between the anode and the cathode. … Electrons repel each other and try to go to a place with fewer electrons. In a battery, the only place to go is to the cathode. But, the electrolyte keeps the electrons from going straight from the anode to the cathode within the battery. When the circuit is closed (a wire connects the cathode and the anode) the electrons will be able to get to the cathode. In the picture above, the electrons go through the wire, lighting the light bulb along the way. This is one way of describing how electrical potential causes electrons to flow through the Figure 1: Internal organization of a battery circuit.” (, no date provided) The Qualitative Reasoning Group is made up of faculty and graduate students in Computer Science at Northwestern University From HowStuffWorks.Com “The internal workings of a battery are typically housed within a metal or plastic case. Inside this case are a cathode, which connects to the positive terminal, and an anode, which connects to the negative terminal. These components, more generally known as electrodes, occupy most of the space in a battery and are the place where the chemical reactions occur.” “[T]he anode [undergoes a chemical reaction,] producing a compound and releasing one or more electrons. [T]he cathode substance, ions and free electrons also combine to form compounds. The reaction in the anode creates electrons, and the reaction in the cathode absorbs them. The net product is electricity. The battery will continue to produce electricity until one or both of the

electrodes run out of the substance necessary for the reactions to occur.” (, 2011) How Stuff Works is owned by the same company that owns the Discovery Channel. Content is written by employees of Discovery Communications. My real-world experience and questions: I have measured current at various points in a circuit. I know that the current is the same leaving the battery (at the negative terminal) as going in (at the positive terminal), so that seems to support the idea that the battery isn’t “running out” of electrons, just redistributing them from its negative to its positive terminal. None of the sources stated what they meant by “battery charge” exactly. It doesn’t seem to be the amount of charge (since electrons always have the same charge, and batteries always have the same number of electrons). Since a fresh AA battery has 1.5V (or a little more) and its voltage slowly goes down, it seems that we are not really talking about “battery charge” but about “battery voltage” or “battery energy.” Maybe the total amount of energy at the anode is going down, until there is no difference between the energy at the anode and the energy at the cathode. Or, maybe the energy at the anode is going down, and energy at the cathode is going up at the same time, until there is no difference between them. In either case, the difference of energy is reducing. I know this because I can measure the voltage (difference of energy) of the battery reducing. It seems that the chemical reaction is what’s causing the electrons to have more energy somehow. Is it because the electrons have more energy that they build up? Or is it because the electrons are built up, repelling each other strongly, that gives them more energy? What could be clearer: The Qualitative Research Group says that the buildup of electrons at the anode “results in an electrical difference between the anode and the cathode.” They don’t say exactly what kind of “electrical difference” they mean – I’m guessing they mean a difference between the number of electrons at the negative terminal compared to the positive terminal. Or possibly a difference between the energy level of the electrons at the negative terminal compared to the electrons at the positive terminal. They also mention that the electrolyte prevents electrons from going straight from the negative to the positive terminal, inside the battery, but they don’t say how. They don’t explain what they mean by “electrical potential,” although in light of the rest of the explanation, it sounds like they mean the buildup of electrons at the negative terminal. How Stuff Works first says that the negative terminal is “releasing” electrons, and later says it is “creating” them. These seem contradictory, unless they mean that the negative terminal is creating “free” electrons (maybe electrons which were previously “trapped” by their nucleus). Chain of Cause and Effect: A chemical reaction causes more electrons to build up on one side of the battery than on the other. That buildup causes the electrons to be closer together, which causes them to repel more strongly. Since there are fewer electrons at the positive terminal, those electrons would have more space to be further apart, so they would repel each other less strongly. The stronger repulsion overpowers

the weaker repulsion and pushes the electron toward the positive terminal, if it can. But the electron can not travel through the electrolyte, for reasons that are not fully explained. Therefore it stays at the negative terminal until a circuit is connected that allows it to travel to the positive terminal. Connections to the model: We know that the chemical reaction in a battery continues even when it’s not connected, and that the battery will “discharge” even when it’s not connected. The sources say that electrons can not travel through the electrolyte. Maybe they are simplifying, and in reality a small number of electrons do travel through the electrolyte?