An electrode is an electrical conductor used to make contact with a nonmetallic part of a circuit (e.g. a semiconductor, an electrolyte, a vacuum or air). The word was coined by William Whewell at the request of the scientist Michael Faraday from two Greek words: elektron, meaning amber (from which the word electricity is derived), and hodos, a way.

The electrophore, invented by Johan Wilcke, was an early version of an electrode used to study static electricity.


Anode and cathode in electrochemical cells

Configuration of the electrode

An electrode in an electrochemical cell is referred to as either an anode or a cathode (words that were coined by William Whewell at Faraday's request). The anode is now defined as the electrode at which electrons leave the cell and oxidation occurs (indicated by a minus symbol, "−"), and the cathode as the electrode at which electrons enter the cell and reduction occurs (indicated by a plus symbol, "+"). Each electrode may become either the anode or the cathode depending on the direction of current through the cell. A bipolar electrode is an electrode that functions as the anode of one cell and the cathode of another cell.


Primary cell

A primary cell is a special type of electrochemical cell in which the reaction cannot be reversed and the identities of the anode and cathode are therefore fixed. The anode is always the negative electrode. The cell can be discharged but not recharged.


Secondary cell

A secondary cell, for example a rechargeable battery, is a cell in which the chemical reactions are reversible. When the cell is being charged, the anode becomes the positive (+) and the cathode the negative (−) electrode. This is also the case in an electrolytic cell. When the cell is being discharged, it behaves like a primary cell, with the anode as the negative and the cathode as the positive electrode. Charging and discharging processes, such as those in Lithium-ion batteries, tend to incur large losses through contact resistance at electrodes. Minimising these electrode localised losses constitutes an important approach in improving energy usage in electrochemical storage.


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