Royal Institution, November 30, 1833.
S 11. On Electro-chemical Decomposition, continued.[A] P iv. On some general conditions of Electro-decomposition. P v. On a new Measurer of Volta-electricity. P vi. On the primary or secondary character of bodies evolved in Electro-decomposition. P vii. On the definite nature and extent of Electro-chemical Decompositions. S 13. On the absolute quantity of Electricity associated with the particles or atoms of Matter.
[A] Refer to the note after 1047, Series VIII.—Dec. 1838.
Received January 9,—Read January 23, February 6 and 13, 1834.
661. The theory which I believe to be a true expression of the facts of electro-chemical decomposition, and which I have therefore detailed in a former series of these Researches, is so much at variance with those previously advanced, that I find the greatest difficulty in stating results, as I think, correctly, whilst limited to the use of terms which are current with a certain accepted meaning. Of this kind is the term pole, with its prefixes of positive and negative, and the attached ideas of attraction and repulsion. The general phraseology is that the positive pole attracts oxygen, acids, &c., or more cautiously, that it determines their evolution upon its surface; and that the negative pole acts in an equal manner upon hydrogen, combustibles, metals, and bases. According to my view, the determining force is not at the poles, but within the body under decomposition; and the oxygen and acids are rendered at the negative extremity of that body, whilst hydrogen, metals, &c., are evolved at the positive extremity (518. 524.).
662. To avoid, therefore, confusion and circumlocution, and for the sake of greater precision of expression than I can otherwise obtain, I have deliberately considered the subject with two friends, and with their assistance and concurrence in framing them, I purpose henceforward using certain other terms, which I will now define. The poles, as they are usually called, are only the doors or ways by which the electric current passes into and out of the decomposing body (556.); and they of course, when in contact with that body, are the limits of its extent in the direction of the current. The term has been generally applied to the metal surfaces in contact with the decomposing substance; but whether philosophers generally would also apply it to the surfaces of air (465. 471.) and water (493.), against which I have effected electro-chemical decomposition, is subject to doubt. In place of the term pole, I propose using that of Electrode[A], and I mean thereby that substance, or rather surface, whether of air, water, metal, or any other body, which bounds the extent of the decomposing matter in the direction of the electric current.
[A] [Greek: elektron], and [Greek: -odos] a way.
663. The surfaces at which, according to common phraseology, the electric current enters and leaves a decomposing body, are most important places of action, and require to be distinguished apart from the poles, with which they are mostly, and the electrodes, with which they are always, in contact. Wishing for a natural standard of electric direction to which I might refer these, expressive of their difference and at the same time free from all theory, I have thought it might be found in the earth. If the magnetism of the earth be due to electric currents passing round it, the latter must be in a constant direction, which, according to present usage of speech, would be from east to west, or, which will strengthen this help to the memory, that in which the sun appears to move. If in any case of electro-decomposition we consider the decomposing body as placed so that the current passing through it shall be in the same direction, and parallel to that supposed to exist in the earth, then the surfaces at which the electricity is passing into and out of the substance would have an invariable reference, and exhibit constantly the same relations of powers. Upon this notion we purpose calling that towards the east the anode[A], and that towards the west the cathode[B]; and whatever changes may take place in our views of the nature of electricity and electrical action, as they must affect the natural standard referred to, in the same direction, and to an equal amount with any decomposing substances to which these terms may at any time be applied, there seems no reason to expect that they will lead to confusion, or tend in any way to support false views. The anode is therefore that surface at which the electric current, according to our present expression, enters: it is the negative extremity of the decomposing body; is where oxygen, chlorine, acids, &c., are evolved; and is against or opposite the positive electrode. The cathode is that surface at which the current leaves the decomposing body, and is its positive extremity; the combustible bodies, metals, alkalies, and bases, are evolved there, and it is in contact with the negative electrode.
[A] [Greek: ano] upwards, and [Greek: -odos] a way; the way which the sun rises.
[B] [Greek: kata] downwards, and [Greek: -odos] a way; the way which the sun sets.
664. I shall have occasion in these Researches, also, to class bodies together according to certain relations derived from their electrical actions (822.); and wishing to express those relations without at the same time involving the expression of any hypothetical views, I intend using the following names and terms. Many bodies are decomposed directly by the electric current, their elements being set free; these I propose to call electrolytes.[A] Water, therefore, is an electrolyte. The bodies which, like nitric or sulphuric acids, are decomposed in a secondary manner (752. 757.), are not included under this term. Then for electro-chemically decomposed, I shall often use the term electrolyzed, derived in the same way, and implying that the body spoken of is separated into its components under the influence of electricity: it is analogous in its sense and sound to analyse, which is derived in a similar manner. The term electrolytical will be understood at once: muriatic acid is electrolytical, boracic acid is not.
[A] [Greek: elektron], and [Greek: lyo], soluo. N. Electrolyte, V. Electrolyze.
665. Finally, I require a term to express those bodies which can pass to the electrodes, or, as they are usually called, the poles. Substances are frequently spoken of as being electro-negative, or electro-positive, according as they go under the supposed influence of a direct attraction to the positive or negative pole. But these terms are much too significant for the use to which I should have to put them; for though the meanings are perhaps right, they are only hypothetical, and may be wrong; and then, through a very imperceptible, but still very dangerous, because continual, influence, they do great injury to science, by contracting and limiting the habitual views of those engaged in pursuing it. I propose to distinguish such bodies by calling those anions[A] which go to the anode of the decomposing body; and those passing to the cathode, cations[B]; and when I have occasion to speak of these together, I shall call them ions. Thus the chloride of lead is an electrolyte, and when electrolyzed evolves the two ions, chlorine and lead, the former being an anion, and the latter a cation.
[A] [Greek: anion] that which goes up. (Neuter participle.)
[B] [Greek: kation] that which goes down.
666. These terms being once well-defined, will, I hope, in their use enable me to avoid much periphrasis and ambiguity of expression. I do not mean to press them into service more frequently than will be required, for I am fully aware that names are one thing and science another.
667. It will be well understood that I am giving no opinion respecting the nature of the electric current now, beyond what I have done on former occasions (283. 517.); and that though I speak of the current as proceeding from the parts which are positive to those which are negative (663.), it is merely in accordance with the conventional, though in some degree tacit, agreement entered into by scientific men, that they may have a constant, certain, and definite means of referring to the direction of the forces of that current.
[Since this paper was read, I have changed some of the terms which were first proposed, that I might employ only such as were at the same time simple in their nature, clear in their reference, and free from hypothesis.
P iv. On some general conditions of Electro-chemical Decomposition.
669. From the period when electro-chemical decomposition was first effected to the present time, it has been a remark, that those elements which, in the ordinary phenomena of chemical affinity, were the most directly opposed to each other, and combined with the greatest attractive force, were those which were the most readily evolved at the opposite extremities of the decomposing bodies (549.).
670. If this result was evident when water was supposed to be essential to, and was present in, almost every case of such decomposition (472.), it is far more evident now that it has been shown and proved that water is not necessarily concerned in the phenomena (474.), and that other bodies much surpass it in some of the effects supposed to be peculiar to that substance.
671. Water, from its constitution and the nature of its elements, and from its frequent presence in cases of electrolytic action, has hitherto stood foremost in this respect. Though a compound formed by very powerful affinity, it yields up its elements under the influence of a very feeble electric current; and it is doubtful whether a case of electrolyzation can occur, where, being present, it is not resolved into its first principles.
672. The various oxides, chlorides, iodides, and salts, which I have shown are decomposable by the electric current when in the liquid state, under the same general law with water (402.), illustrate in an equally striking manner the activity, in such decompositions, of elements directly and powerfully opposed to each other by their chemical relations.
673. On the other hand, bodies dependent on weak affinities very rarely give way. Take, for instance, glasses: many of those formed of silica, lime, alkali, and oxide of lead, may be considered as little more than solutions of substances one in another[A]. If bottle-glass be fused, and subjected to the voltaic pile, it does not appear to be at all decomposed (408.). If flint glass, which contains substances more directly opposed, be operated upon, it suffers some decomposition; and if borate of lead glass, which is a definite chemical compound, be experimented with, it readily yields up its elements (408.).
[A] Philosophical Transactions, 1830, p. 49.
674. But the result which is found to be so striking in the instances quoted is not at all borne out by reference to other cases where a similar consequence might have been expected. It may be said, that my own theory of electro-chemical decomposition would lead to the expectation that all compound bodies should give way under the influence of the electric current with a facility proportionate to the strength of the affinity by which their elements, either proximate or ultimate, are combined. I am not sure that that follows as a consequence of the theory; but if the objection is supposed to be one presented by the facts, I have no doubt it will be removed when we obtain a more intimate acquaintance with, and precise idea of, the nature of chemical affinity and the mode of action of an electric current over it (518. 524.): besides which, it is just as directly opposed to any other theory of electro-chemical decomposition as the one I have propounded; for if it be admitted, as is generally the case, that the more directly bodies are opposed to each other in their attractive forces, the more powerfully do they combine, then the objection applies with equal force to any of the theories of electrolyzation which have been considered, and is an addition to those which I have taken against them.
675. Amongst powerful compounds which are not decomposed, boracic acids stand prominent (408.). Then again, the iodide of sulphur, and the chlorides of sulphur, phosphorus, and carbon, are not decomposable under common circumstances, though their elements are of a nature which would lead to a contrary expectation. Chloride of antimony (402. 690.), the hydro-carbons, acetic acid, ammonia, and many other bodies undecomposable by the voltaic pile, would seem to be formed by an affinity sufficiently strong to indicate that the elements were so far contrasted in their nature as to sanction the expectation that, the pile would separate them, especially as in some cases of mere solution (530. 544.), where the affinity must by comparison be very weak, separation takes place[A].
[A] With regard to solution, I have met with some reasons for supposing that it will probably disappear as a cause of transference, and intend resuming the consideration at a convenient opportunity.
676. It must not be forgotten, however, that much of this difficulty, and perhaps the whole, may depend upon the absence of conducting power, which, preventing the transmission of the current, prevents of course the effects due to it. All known compounds being non-conductors when solid, but conductors when liquid, are decomposed, with perhaps the single exception at present known of periodide of mercury (679. 691.)[A]; and even water itself, which so easily yields up its elements when the current passes, if rendered quite pure, scarcely suffers change, because it then becomes a very bad conductor.
[A] See now, 1340, 1341.—Dec. 1838.
677. If it should hereafter be proved that the want of decomposition in those cases where, from chemical considerations, it might be so strongly expected (669, 672. 674.), is due to the absence or deficiency of conducting power, it would also at the same time be proved that decomposition depends upon conduction, and not the latter upon the former (413.); and in water this seems to be very nearly decided. On the other hand, the conclusion is almost irresistible, that in electrolytes the power of transmitting the electricity across the substance is dependent upon their capability of suffering decomposition; taking place only whilst they are decomposing, and being proportionate to the quantity of elements separated (821.). I may not, however, stop to discuss this point experimentally at present.
678. When a compound contains such elements as are known to pass towards the opposite extremities of the voltaic pile, still the proportions in which they are present appear to be intimately connected with capability in the compound of suffering or resisting decomposition. Thus, the protochloride of tin readily conducts, and is decomposed (402.), but the perchloride neither conducts nor is decomposed (406.). The protiodide of tin is decomposed when fluid (402.); the periodide is not (405.). The periodide of mercury when fused is not decomposed (691.), even though it does conduct. I was unable to contrast it with the protiodide, the latter being converted into mercury and periodide by heat.
679. These important differences induced me to look more closely to certain binary compounds, with a view of ascertaining whether a law regulating the decomposability according to some relation of the proportionals or equivalents of the elements, could be discovered. The proto compounds only, amongst those just referred to, were decomposable; and on referring to the substances quoted to illustrate the force and generality of the law of conduction and decomposition which I discovered (402.), it will be found that all the oxides, chlorides, and iodides subject to it, except the chloride of antimony and the periodide of mercury, (to which may now perhaps be added corrosive sublimate,) are also decomposable, whilst many per compounds of the same elements, not subject to the law, were not so (405. 406.).
680. The substances which appeared to form the strongest exceptions to this general result were such bodies as the sulphuric, phosphoric, nitric, arsenic, and other acids.
681. On experimenting with sulphuric acid, I found no reason to believe that it was by itself a conductor of, or decomposable by, electricity, although I had previously been of that opinion (552.). When very strong it is a much worse conductor than if diluted[A]. If then subjected to the action of a powerful battery, oxygen appears at the anode, or positive electrode, although much is absorbed (728.), and hydrogen and sulphur appear at the cathode, or negative electrode. Now the hydrogen has with me always been pure, not sulphuretted, and has been deficient in proportion to the sulphur present, so that it is evident that when decomposition occurred water must have been decomposed. I endeavoured to make the experiment with anhydrous sulphuric acid; and it appeared to me that, when fused, such acid was not a conductor, nor decomposed; but I had not enough of the dry acid in my possession to allow me to decide the point satisfactorily. My belief is, that when sulphur appears during the action of the pile on sulphuric acid, it is the result of a secondary action, and that the acid itself is not electrolyzable (757.).
[A] De la Rive.
682. Phosphoric acid is, I believe, also in the same condition; but I have found it impossible to decide the point, because of the difficulty of operating on fused anhydrous phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid which has once obtained water cannot be deprived of it by heat alone. When heated, the hydrated acid volatilizes. Upon subjecting phosphoric acid, fused upon the ring end of a wire (401.), to the action of the voltaic apparatus, it conducted, and was decomposed; but gas, which I believe to be hydrogen, was always evolved at the negative electrode, and the wire was not affected as would have happened had phosphorus been separated. Gas was also evolved at the positive electrode. From all the facts, I conclude it was the water and not the acid which was decomposed.
683. Arsenic acid. This substance conducted, and was decomposed; but it contained water, and I was unable at the time to press the investigation so as to ascertain whether a fusible anhydrous arsenic acid could be obtained. It forms, therefore, at present no exception to the general result.
684. Nitrous acid, obtained by distilling nitrate of lead, and keeping it in contact with strong sulphuric acid, was found to conduct and decompose slowly. But on examination there were strong reasons for believing that water was present, and that the decomposition and conduction depended upon it. I endeavoured to prepare a perfectly anhydrous portion, but could not spare the time required to procure an unexceptionable result.
685. Nitric acid is a substance which I believe is not decomposed directly by the electric current. As I want the facts in illustration of the distinction existing between primary and secondary decomposition, I will merely refer to them in this place (752.).
686. That these mineral acids should confer facility of conduction and decomposition on water, is no proof that they are competent to favour and suffer these actions in themselves. Boracic acid does the same thing, though not decomposable. M. de la Rive has pointed out that chlorine has this power also; but being to us an elementary substance, it cannot be due to its capability of suffering decomposition.
687. Chloride of sulphur does not conduct, nor is it decomposed. It consists of single proportionals of its elements, but is not on that account an exception to the rule (679.), which does not affirm that all compounds of single proportionals of elements are decomposable, but that such as are decomposable are so constituted.
688. Protochloride of phosphorus does not conduct nor become decomposed.
689. Protochloride of carbon does not conduct nor suffer decomposition. In association with this substance, I submitted the hydro-chloride of carbon from olefiant gas and chlorine to the action of the electric current; but it also refused to conduct or yield up its elements.
600. With regard to the exceptions (679.), upon closer examination some of them disappear. Chloride of antimony (a compound of one proportional of antimony and one and a half of chlorine) of recent preparation was put into a tube (fig. 68.) (789.), and submitted when fused to the action of the current, the positive electrode being of plumbago. No electricity passed, and no appearance of decomposition was visible at first; but when the positive and negative electrodes were brought very near each other in the chloride, then a feeble action occurred and a feeble current passed. The effect altogether was so small (although quite amenable to the law before given (394.)), and so unlike the decomposition and conduction occurring in all the other cases, that I attribute it to the presence of a minute quantity of water, (for which this and many other chlorides have strong attractions, producing hydrated chlorides,) or perhaps of a true protochloride consisting of single proportionals (695, 796.).
691. Periodide of mercury being examined in the same manner, was found most distinctly to insulate whilst solid, but conduct when fluid, according to the law of liquido-conduction (402.); but there was no appearance of decomposition. No iodine appeared at the anode, nor mercury or other substance at the cathode. The case is, therefore, no exception to the rule, that only compounds of single proportionals are decomposable; but it is an exception, and I think the only one, to the statement, that all bodies subject to the law of liquido-conduction are decomposable. I incline, however, to believe, that a portion of protiodide of mercury is retained dissolved in the periodide, and that to its slow decomposition the feeble conducting power is due. Periodide would be formed, as a secondary result, at the anode; and the mercury at the cathode would also form, as a secondary result, protiodide. Both these bodies would mingle with the fluid mass, and thus no final separation appear, notwithstanding the continued decomposition.
692. When perchloride of mercury was subjected to the voltaic current, it did not conduct in the solid state, but it did conduct when fluid. I think, also, that in the latter case it was decomposed; but there are many interfering circumstances which require examination before a positive conclusion can be drawn[A].
[A] With regard to perchloride and periodide of mercury, see now 1340, 1341.—Dec. 1838.
693. When the ordinary protoxide of antimony is subjected to the voltaic current in a fused state, it also is decomposed, although the effect from other causes soon ceases (402, 801.). This oxide consists of one proportional of antimony and one and a half of oxygen, and is therefore an exception to the general law assumed. But in working with this oxide and the chloride, I observed facts which lead me to doubt whether the compounds usually called the protoxide and the protochloride do not often contain other compounds, consisting of single proportions, which are the true proto compounds, and which, in the case of the oxide, might give rise to the decomposition above described.
694. The ordinary sulphuret of antimony its considered as being the compound with the smallest quantity of sulphur, and analogous in its proportions to the ordinary protoxide. But I find that if it be fused with metallic antimony, a new sulphuret is formed, containing much more of the metal than the former, and separating distinctly, when fused, both from the pure metal on the one hand, and the ordinary gray sulphuret on the other. In some rough experiments, the metal thus taken up by the ordinary sulphuret of antimony was equal to half the proportion of that previously in the sulphuret, in which case the new sulphuret would consist of single proportionals.
695. When this new sulphuret was dissolved in muriatic acid, although a little antimony separated, yet it appeared to me that a true protochloride, consisting of single proportionals, was formed, and from that by alkalies, &c., a true protoxide, consisting also of single proportionals, was obtainable. But I could not stop to ascertain this matter strictly by analysis.
696. I believe, however, that there is such an oxide; that it is often present in variable proportions in what is commonly called protoxide, throwing uncertainty upon the results of its analysis, and causing the electrolytic decomposition above described[A].
[A] In relation to this and the three preceding paragraphs, and also 801, see Berzelius's correction of the nature of the supposed now sulphuret and oxide, Phil. Mag. 1836, vol. viii. 476: and for the probable explanation of the effects obtained with the protoxide, refer to 1340, 1341.—Dec. 1838.
697. Upon the whole, it appears probable that all those binary compounds of elementary bodies which are capable of being electrolyzed when fluid, but not whilst solid, according to the law of liquido-conduction (394.), consist of single proportionals of their elementary principles; and it may be because of their departure from this simplicity of composition, that boracic acid, ammonia, perchlorides, periodides, and many other direct compounds of elements, are indecomposable.
698. With regard to salts and combinations of compound bodies, the same simple relation does not appear to hold good. I could not decide this by bisulphates of the alkalies, for as long as the second proportion of acid remained, water was retained with it. The fused salts conducted, and were decomposed; but hydrogen always appeared at the negative electrode.
699. A biphosphate of soda was prepared by heating, and ultimately fusing, the ammonia-phosphate of soda. In this case the fused bisalt conducted, and was decomposed; but a little gas appeared at the negative electrode; and though I believe the salt itself was electrolyzed, I am not quite satisfied that water was entirely absent.
700. Then a biborate of soda was prepared; and this, I think, is an unobjectionable case. The salt, when fused, conducted, and was decomposed, and gas appeared at both electrodes: even when the boracic acid was increased to three proportionals, the same effect took place.
701. Hence this class of compound combinations does not seem to be subject to the same simple law as the former class of binary combinations. Whether we may find reason to consider them as mere solutions of the compound of single proportionals in the excess of acid, is a matter which, with some apparent exceptions occurring amongst the sulphurets, must be left for decision by future examination.
702. In any investigation of these points, great care must be taken to exclude water; for if present, secondary effects are so frequently produced as often seemingly to indicate an electro-decomposition of substances, when no true result of the kind has occurred (742, &c.).
703. It is evident that all the cases in which decomposition does not occur, may depend upon the want of conduction (677. 413.); but that does not at all lessen the interest excited by seeing the great difference of effect due to a change, not in the nature of the elements, but merely in their proportions; especially in any attempt which may be made to elucidate and expound the beautiful theory put forth by Sir Humphry Davy[A], and illustrated by Berzelius and other eminent philosophers, that ordinary chemical affinity is a mere result of the electrical attractions of the particles of matter.
[A] Philosophical Transactions, 1807, pp. 32, 39; also 1826, pp. 387, 389.
P v. On a new measure of Volta-electricity.
704. I have already said, when engaged in reducing common and voltaic electricity to one standard of measurement (377.), and again when introducing my theory of electro-chemical decomposition (504. 505. 510.), that the chemical decomposing action of a current is constant for a constant quantity of electricity, notwithstanding the greatest variations in its sources, in its intensity, in the size of the electrodes used, in the nature of the conductors (or non-conductors (307.)) through which it is passed, or in other circumstances. The conclusive proofs of the truth of these statements shall be given almost immediately (783, &c.).
705. I endeavoured upon this law to construct an instrument which should measure out the electricity passing through it, and which, being interposed in the course of the current used in any particular experiment, should serve at pleasure, either as a comparative standard of effect, or as a positive measurer of this subtile agent.
706. There is no substance better fitted, under ordinary circumstances, to be the indicating body in such an instrument than water; for it is decomposed with facility when rendered a better conductor by the addition of acids or salts; its elements may in numerous cases be obtained and collected without any embarrassment from secondary action, and, being gaseous, they are in the best physical condition for separation and measurement. Water, therefore, acidulated by sulphuric acid, is the substance I shall generally refer to, although it may become expedient in peculiar cases or forms of experiment to use other bodies (843.).
707. The first precaution needful in the construction of the instrument was to avoid the recombination of the evolved gases, an effect which the positive electrode has been found so capable of producing (571.). For this purpose various forms of decomposing apparatus were used. The first consisted of straight tubes, each containing a plate and wire of platina soldered together by gold, and fixed hermetically in the glass at the closed extremity of the tube (Plate V. fig. 60.). The tubes were about eight inches long, 0.7 of an inch in diameter, and graduated. The platina plates were about an inch long, as wide as the tubes would permit, and adjusted as near to the mouths of the tubes as was consistent with the safe collection of the gases evolved. In certain cases, where it was required to evolve the elements upon as small a surface as possible, the metallic extremity, instead of being a plate, consisted of the wire bent into the form of a ring (fig. 61.). When these tubes were used as measurers, they were filled with the dilute sulphuric acid, inverted in a basin of the same liquid (fig. 62.), and placed in an inclined position, with their mouths near to each other, that as little decomposing matter should intervene as possible; and also, in such a direction that the platina plates should be in vertical planes (720).
708. Another form of apparatus is that delineated (fig. 63.). The tube is bent in the middle; one end is closed; in that end is fixed a wire and plate, a, proceeding so far downwards, that, when in the position figured, it shall be as near to the angle as possible, consistently with the collection, at the closed extremity of the tube, of all the gas evolved against it. The plane of this plate is also perpendicular (720.). The other metallic termination, b, is introduced at the time decomposition is to be effected, being brought as near the angle as possible, without causing any gas to pass from it towards the closed end of the instrument. The gas evolved against it is allowed to escape.
709. The third form of apparatus contains both electrodes in the same tube; the transmission, therefore, of the electricity, and the consequent decomposition, is far more rapid than in the separate tubes. The resulting gas is the sum of the portions evolved at the two electrodes, and the instrument is better adapted than either of the former as a measurer of the quantity of voltaic electricity transmitted in ordinary cases. It consists of a straight tube (fig. 64.) closed at the upper extremity, and graduated, through the sides of which pass platina wires (being fused into the glass), which are connected with two plates within. The tube is fitted by grinding into one mouth of a double-necked bottle. If the latter be one-half or two-thirds full of the dilute sulphuric acid (706.), it will, upon inclination of the whole, flow into the tube and fill it. When an electric current is passed through the instrument, the gases evolved against the plates collect in the upper portion of the tube, and are not subject to the recombining power of the platina.
710. Another form of the instrument is given at fig. 65.
711. A fifth form is delineated (fig. 66.). This I have found exceedingly useful in experiments continued in succession for days together, and where large quantities of indicating gas were to be collected. It is fixed on a weighted foot, and has the form of a small retort containing the two electrodes: the neck is narrow, and sufficiently long to deliver gas issuing from it into a jar placed in a small pneumatic trough. The electrode chamber, sealed hermetically at the part held in the stand, is five inches in length, and 0.6 of an inch in diameter; the neck about nine inches in length, and 0.4 of an inch in diameter internally. The figure will fully indicate the construction.
712. It can hardly be requisite to remark, that in the arrangement of any of these forms of apparatus, they, and the wires connecting them with the substance, which is collaterally subjected to the action of the same electric current, should be so far insulated as to ensure a certainty that all the electricity which passes through the one shall also be transmitted through the other.
* * * * *
713. Next to the precaution of collecting the gases, if mingled, out of contact with the platinum, was the necessity of testing the law of a definite electrolytic action, upon water at least, under all varieties of condition; that, with a conviction of its certainty, might also be obtained a knowledge of those interfering circumstances which would require to be practically guarded against.
714. The first point investigated was the influence or indifference of extensive variations in the size of the electrodes, for which purpose instruments like those last described (709. 710. 711.) were used. One of these had plates 0.7 of an inch wide, and nearly four inches long; another had plates only 0.5 of an inch wide, and 0.8 of an inch long; a third had wires 0.02 of an inch in diameter, and three inches long; and a fourth, similar wires only half an inch in length. Yet when these were filled with dilute sulphuric acid, and, being placed in succession, had one common current of electricity passed through them, very nearly the same quantity of gas was evolved in all. The difference was sometimes in favour of one and sometimes on the side of another; but the general result was that the largest quantity of gases was evolved at the smallest electrodes, namely, those consisting merely of platina wires.
715. Experiments of a similar kind were made with the single-plate, straight tubes (707.), and also with the curved tubes (708.), with similar consequences; and when these, with the former tubes, were arranged together in various ways, the result, as to the equality of action of large and small metallic surfaces when delivering and receiving the same current of electricity, was constantly the same. As an illustration, the following numbers are given. An instrument with two wires evolved 74.3 volumes of mixed gases; another with plates 73.25 volumes; whilst the sum of the oxygen and hydrogen in two separate tubes amounted to 73.65 volumes. In another experiment the volumes were 55.3, 55.3, and 54.4.
716. But it was observed in these experiments, that in single-plate tubes (707.) more hydrogen was evolved at the negative electrode than was proportionate to the oxygen at the positive electrode; and generally, also, more than was proportionate to the oxygen and hydrogen in a double-plate tube. Upon more minutely examining these effects, I was led to refer them, and also the differences between wires and plates (714.), to the solubility of the gases evolved, especially at the positive electrode.
717. When the positive and negative electrodes are equal in surface, the bubbles which rise from them in dilute sulphuric acid are always different in character. Those from the positive plate are exceedingly small, and separate instantly from every part of the surface of the metal, in consequence of its perfect cleanliness (633.); whilst in the liquid they give it a hazy appearance, from their number and minuteness; are easily carried down by currents, and therefore not only present far greater surface of contact with the liquid than larger bubbles would do, but are retained a much longer time in mixture with it. But the bubbles at the negative surface, though they constitute twice the volume of the gas at the positive electrode, are nevertheless very inferior in number. They do not rise so universally from every part of the surface, but seem to be evolved at different parts; and though so much larger, they appear to cling to the metal, separating with difficulty from it, and when separated, instantly rising to the top of the liquid. If, therefore, oxygen and hydrogen had equal solubility in, or powers of combining with, water under similar circumstances, still under the present conditions the oxygen would be far the most liable to solution; but when to these is added its well-known power of forming a compound with water, it is no longer surprising that such a compound should be produced in small quantities at the positive electrode; and indeed the blenching power which some philosophers have observed in a solution at this electrode, when chlorine and similar bodies have been carefully excluded, is probably due to the formation there, in this manner, of oxywater.
718. That more gas was collected from the wires than from the plates, I attribute to the circumstance, that as equal quantities were evolved in equal times, the bubbles at the wires having been more rapidly produced, in relation to any part of the surface, must have been much larger; have been therefore in contact with the fluid by a much smaller surface, and for a much shorter time than those at the plates; hence less solution and a greater amount collected.
719. There was also another effect produced, especially by the use of large electrodes, which was both a consequence and a proof of the solution of part of the gas evolved there. The collected gas, when examined, was found to contain small portions of nitrogen. This I attribute to the presence of air dissolved in the acid used for decomposition. It is a well-known fact, that when bubbles of a gas but slightly soluble in water or solutions pass through them, the portion of this gas which is dissolved displaces a portion of that previously in union with the liquid: and so, in the decompositions under consideration, as the oxygen dissolves, it displaces a part of the air, or at least of the nitrogen, previously united to the acid; and this effect takes place most extensively with large plates, because the gas evolved at them is in the most favourable condition for solution,
720. With the intention of avoiding this solubility of the gases as much as possible, I arranged the decomposing plates in a vertical position (707. 708.), that the bubbles might quickly escape upwards, and that the downward currents in the fluid should not meet ascending currents of gas. This precaution I found to assist greatly in producing constant results, and especially in experiments to be hereafter referred to, in which other liquids than dilute sulphuric acid, as for instance solution of potash, were used.
721. The irregularities in the indications of the measurer proposed, arising from the solubility just referred to, are but small, and may be very nearly corrected by comparing the results of two or three experiments. They may also be almost entirely avoided by selecting that solution which is found to favour them in the least degree (728.); and still further by collecting the hydrogen only, and using that as the indicating gas; for being much less soluble than oxygen, being evolved with twice the rapidity and in larger bubbles (717.), it can be collected more perfectly and in greater purity.
722. From the foregoing and many other experiments, it results that variation in the size of the electrodes causes no variation in the chemical action of a given quantity of electricity upon water.
723. The next point in regard to which the principle of constant electro-chemical action was tested, was variation of intensity. In the first place, the preceding experiments were repeated, using batteries of an equal number of plates, strongly and weakly charged; but the results were alike. They were then repeated, using batteries sometimes containing forty, and at other times only five pairs of plates; but the results were still the same. Variations therefore in the intensity, caused by difference in the strength of charge, or in the number of alternations used, produced no difference as to the equal action of large and small electrodes.
724. Still these results did not prove that variation in the intensity of the current was not accompanied by a corresponding variation in the electro-chemical effects, since the actions at all the surfaces might have increased or diminished together. The deficiency in the evidence is, however, completely supplied by the former experiments on different-sized electrodes; for with variation in the size of these, a variation in the intensity must have occurred. The intensity of an electric current traversing conductors alike in their nature, quality, and length, is probably as the quantity of electricity passing through a given sectional area perpendicular to the current, divided by the time (360. note); and therefore when large plates were contrasted with wires separated by an equal length of the same decomposing conductor (714.), whilst one current of electricity passed through both arrangements, that electricity must have been in a very different state, as to tension, between the plates and between the wires; yet the chemical results were the same.
725. The difference in intensity, under the circumstances described, may be easily shown practically, by arranging two decomposing apparatus as in fig. 67, where the same fluid is subjected to the decomposing power of the same current of electricity, passing in the vessel A. between large platina plates, and in the vessel B. between small wires. If a third decomposing apparatus, such as that delineated fig. 66. (711.), be connected with the wires at ab, fig. 67, it will serve sufficiently well, by the degree of decomposition occurring in it, to indicate the relative state of the two plates as to intensity; and if it then be applied in the same way, as a test of the state of the wires at a'b', it will, by the increase of decomposition within, show how much greater the intensity is there than at the former points. The connexions of P and N with the voltaic battery are of course to be continued during the whole time.
726. A third form of experiment, in which difference of intensity was obtained, for the purpose of testing the principle of equal chemical action, was to arrange three volta-electrometers, so that after the electric current had passed through one, it should divide into two parts, each of which should traverse one of the remaining instruments, and should then reunite. The sum of the decomposition in the two latter vessels was always equal to the decomposition in the former vessel. But the intensity of the divided current could not be the same as that it had in its original state; and therefore variation of intensity has no influence on the results if the quantity of electricity remain the same. The experiment, in fact, resolves itself simply into an increase in the size of the electrodes (725.).
727. The third point, in respect to which the principle of equal electro-chemical action on water was tested, was variation of the strength of the solution used. In order to render the water a conductor, sulphuric acid had been added to it (707.); and it did not seem unlikely that this substance, with many others, might render the water more subject to decomposition, the electricity remaining the same in quantity. But such did not prove to be the case. Diluted sulphuric acid, of different strengths, was introduced into different decomposing apparatus, and submitted simultaneously to the action of the same electric current (714.). Slight differences occurred, as before, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another; but the final result was, that exactly the same quantity of water was decomposed in all the solutions by the same quantity of electricity, though the sulphuric acid in some was seventy-fold what it was in others. The strengths used were of specific gravity 1.495, and downwards.
728. When an acid having a specific gravity of about 1.336 was employed, the results were most uniform, and the oxygen and hydrogen (716.) most constantly in the right proportion to each other. Such an acid gave more gas than one much weaker acted upon by the same current, apparently because it had less solvent power. If the acid were very strong, then a remarkable disappearance of oxygen took place; thus, one made by mixing two measures of strong oil of vitriol with one of water, gave forty-two volumes of hydrogen, but only twelve of oxygen. The hydrogen was very nearly the same with that evolved from acid of the specific gravity 1.232. I have not yet had time to examine minutely the circumstances attending the disappearance of the oxygen in this case, but imagine it is due to the formation of oxywater, which Thenard has shown is favoured by the presence of acid.
729. Although not necessary for the practical use of the instrument I am describing, yet as connected with the important point of constant chemical action upon water, I now investigated the effects produced by an electro-electric current passing through aqueous solutions of acids, salts, and compounds, exceedingly different from each other in their nature, and found them to yield astonishingly uniform results. But many of them which are connected with a secondary action will be more usefully described hereafter (778.).
730. When solutions of caustic potassa or soda, or sulphate of magnesia, or sulphate of soda, were acted upon by the electric current, just as much oxygen and hydrogen was evolved from them as from the diluted sulphuric acid, with which they were compared. When a solution of ammonia, rendered a better conductor by sulphate of ammonia (554.), or a solution of subcarbonate of potassa was experimented with, the hydrogen evolved was in the same quantity as that set free from the diluted sulphuric acid with which they were compared. Hence changes in the nature of the solution do not alter the constancy of electrolytic action upon water.
731. I have already said, respecting large and small electrodes, that change of order caused no change in the general effect (715.). The same was the case with different solutions, or with different intensities; and however the circumstances of an experiment might be varied, the results came forth exceedingly consistent, and proved that the electro-chemical action was still the same.
732. I consider the foregoing investigation as sufficient to prove the very extraordinary and important principle with respect to WATER, that when subjected to the influence of the electric current, a quantity of it is decomposed exactly proportionate to the quantity of electricity which has passed, notwithstanding the thousand variations in the conditions and circumstances under which it may at the time be placed; and further, that when the interference of certain secondary effects (742. &c.), together with the solution or recombination of the gas and the evolution of air, are guarded against, the products of the decomposition may be collected with such accuracy, as to afford a very excellent and valuable measurer of the electricity concerned in their evolution.
733. The forms of instrument which I have given, figg. 64, 65, 66. (709. 710. 711.), are probably those which will be found most useful, as they indicate the quantity of electricity by the largest volume of gases, and cause the least obstruction to the passage of the current. The fluid which my present experience leads me to prefer, is a solution of sulphuric acid of specific gravity about 1.336, or from that to 1.25; but it is very essential that there should be no organic substance, nor any vegetable acid, nor other body, which, by being liable to the action of the oxygen or hydrogen evolved at the electrodes (773. &c.), shall diminish their quantity, or add other gases to them.
734. In many cases when the instrument is used as a comparative standard, or even as a measurer, it may be desirable to collect the hydrogen only, as being less liable to absorption or disappearance in other ways than the oxygen; whilst at the same time its volume is so large, as to render it a good and sensible indicator. In such cases the first and second form of apparatus have been used, figg. 62, 63. (707. 708.). The indications obtained were very constant, the variations being much smaller than in those forms of apparatus collecting both gases; and they can also be procured when solutions are used in comparative experiments, which, yielding no oxygen or only secondary results of its action, can give no indications if the educts at both electrodes be collected. Such is the case when solutions of ammonia, muriatic acid, chlorides, iodides, acetates or other vegetable salts, &c., are employed.
735. In a few cases, as where solutions of metallic salts liable to reduction at the negative electrode are acted upon, the oxygen may be advantageously used as the measuring substance. This is the case, for instance, with sulphate of copper.
736. There are therefore two general forms of the instrument which I submit as a measurer of electricity; one, in which both the gases of the water decomposed are collected (709. 710. 711.); and the other, in which a single gas, as the hydrogen only, is used (707. 708.). When referred to as a comparative instrument, (a use I shall now make of it very extensively,) it will not often require particular precaution in the observation; but when used as an absolute measurer, it will be needful that the barometric pressure and the temperature be taken into account, and that the graduation of the instruments should be to one scale; the hundredths and smaller divisions of a cubical inch are quite fit for this purpose, and the hundredth may be very conveniently taken as indicating a DEGREE of electricity.
737. It can scarcely be needful to point out further than has been done how this instrument is to be used. It is to be introduced into the course of the electric current, the action of which is to be exerted anywhere else, and if 60 deg. or 70 deg. of electricity are to be measured out, either in one or several portions, the current, whether strong or weak, is to be continued until the gas in the tube occupies that number of divisions or hundredths of a cubical inch. Or if a quantity competent to produce a certain effect is to be measured, the effect is to be obtained, and then the indication read off. In exact experiments it is necessary to correct the volume of gas for changes in temperature and pressure, and especially for moisture[A]. For the latter object the volta-electrometer (fig. 66.) is most accurate, as its gas can be measured over water, whilst the others retain it over acid or saline solutions.
[A] For a simple table of correction for moisture, I may take the liberty of referring to my Chemical Manipulation, edition of 1830, p. 376.
738. I have not hesitated to apply the term degree (736.), in analogy with the use made of it with respect to another most important imponderable agent, namely, heat; and as the definite expansion of air, water, mercury, &c., is there made use of to measure heat, so the equally definite evolution of gases is here turned to a similar use for electricity.
739. The instrument offers the only actual measurer of voltaic electricity which we at present possess. For without being at all affected by variations in time or intensity, or alterations in the current itself, of any kind, or from any cause, or even of intermissions of action, it takes note with accuracy of the quantity of electricity which has passed through it, and reveals that quantity by inspection; I have therefore named it a VOLTA-ELECTROMETER.
740. Another mode of measuring volta-electricity may be adopted with advantage in many cases, dependent on the quantities of metals or other substances evolved either as primary or as secondary results; but I refrain from enlarging on this use of the products, until the principles on which their constancy depends have been fully established (791. 848.);
741. By the aid of this instrument I have been able to establish the definite character of electro-chemical action in its most general sense; and I am persuaded it will become of the utmost use in the extensions of the science which these views afford. I do not pretend to have made its detail perfect, but to have demonstrated the truth of the principle, and the utility of the application[A].
[A] As early as the year 1811, Messrs. Gay-Lussac and Thenard employed chemical decomposition as a measure of the electricity of the voltaic pile. See Recherches Physico-chymiques, p. 12. The principles and precautions by which it becomes an exact measure were of course not then known.—Dec. 1838.
P vi. On the primary or secondary character of the bodies evolved at the Electrodes.
742. Before the volta-electrometer could be employed in determining, as a general law, the constancy of electro-decomposition, it became necessary to examine a distinction, already recognised among scientific men, relative to the products of that action, namely, their primary or secondary character; and, if possible, by some general rule or principle, to decide when they were of the one or the other kind. It will appear hereafter that great mistakes inspecting electro-chemical action and its consequences have arisen from confounding these two classes of results together.
743. When a substance under decomposition yields at the electrodes those bodies uncombined and unaltered which the electric current has separated, then they may be considered as primary results, even though themselves compounds. Thus the oxygen and hydrogen from water are primary results; and so also are the acid and alkali (themselves compound bodies) evolved from sulphate of soda. But when the substances separated by the current are changed at the electrodes before their appearance, then they give rise to secondary results, although in many cases the bodies evolved are elementary.
744. These secondary results occur in two ways, being sometimes due to the mutual action of the evolved substance and the matter of the electrode, and sometimes to its action upon the substances contained in the body itself under decomposition. Thus, when carbon is made the positive electrode in dilute sulphuric acid, carbonic oxide and carbonic acid occasionally appear there instead of oxygen; for the latter, acting upon the matter of the electrode, produces these secondary results. Or if the positive electrode, in a solution of nitrate or acetate of lead, be platina, then peroxide of lead appears there, equally a secondary result with the former, but now depending upon an action of the oxygen on a substance in the solution. Again, when ammonia is decomposed by platina electrodes, nitrogen appears at the anode[A]; but though an elementary body, it is a secondary result in this case, being derived from the chemical action of the oxygen electrically evolved there, upon the ammonia in the surrounding solution (554.). In the same manner when aqueous solutions of metallic salts are decomposed by the current, the metals evolved at the cathode, though elements, are always secondary results, and not immediate consequences of the decomposing power of the electric current.
[A] Annales de Chimie, 1801, tom. li. p. 167.
745. Many of these secondary results are extremely valuable; for instance, all the interesting compounds which M. Becquerel has obtained by feeble electric currents are of this nature; but they are essentially chemical, and must, in the theory of electrolytic action, be carefully distinguished from those which are directly due to the action of the electric current.
746. The nature of the substances evolved will often lead to a correct judgement of their primary or secondary character, but is not sufficient alone to establish that point. Thus, nitrogen is said to be attracted sometimes by the positive and sometimes by the negative electrode, according to the bodies with which it may be combined (554. 555.), and it is on such occasions evidently viewed as a primary result[A]; but I think I shall show, that, when it appears at the positive electrode, or rather at the anode, it is a secondary result (748.). Thus, also, Sir Humphry Davy[B], and with him the great body of chemical philosophers, (including myself,) have given the appearance of copper, lead, tin, silver, gold, &c., at the negative electrode, when their aqueous solutions were acted upon by the voltaic current, as proofs that the metals, as a class, were attracted to that surface; thus assuming the metal, in each case, to be a primary result. These, however, I expect to prove, are all secondary results; the mere consequence of chemical action, and no proofs either of the attraction or of the law announced respecting their places[C].
[A] Annales de Chimie, 1804, tom. li. p. 172.
[B] Elements of Chemical Philosophy, pp. 144. 161.
[C] It is remarkable that up to 1804 it was the received opinion that the metals were reduced by the nascent hydrogen. At that date the general opinion was reversed by Hisinger and Berzelius (Annales de Chimie, 1804, tom. li. p. 174,), who stated that the metals were evolved directly by the electricity: in which opinion it appears, from that time, Davy coincided (Philosophical Transactions, 1826, p. 388).
747. But when we take to our assistance the law of constant electro-chemical action already proved with regard to water (732.), and which I hope to extend satisfactorily to all bodies (821.), and consider the quantities as well as the nature of the substances set free, a generally accurate judgement of the primary or secondary character of the results may be formed: and this important point, so essential to the theory of electrolyzation, since it decides what are the particles directly under the influence of the current, (distinguishing them from such as are not affected,) and what are the results to be expected, may be established with such degree of certainty as to remove innumerable ambiguities and doubtful considerations from this branch of the science.
748. Let us apply these principles to the case of ammonia, and the supposed determination of nitrogen to one or the other electrode (554. 555,). A pure strong solution of ammonia is as bad a conductor, and therefore as little liable to electrolyzation, as pure water; but when sulphate of ammonia is dissolved in it, the whole becomes a conductor; nitrogen almost and occasionally quite pure is evolved at the anode, and hydrogen at the cathode; the ratio of the volume of the former to that of the latter varying, but being as 1 to about 3 or 4. This result would seem at first to imply that the electric current had decomposed ammonia, and that the nitrogen had been determined towards the positive electrode. But when the electricity used was measured out by the volta-electrometer (707. 736.), it was found that the hydrogen obtained was exactly in the proportion which would have been supplied by decomposed water, whilst the nitrogen had no certain or constant relation whatever. When, upon multiplying experiments, it was found that, by using a stronger or weaker solution, or a more or less powerful battery, the gas evolved at the anode was a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, varying both in proportion and absolute quantity, whilst the hydrogen at the cathode remained constant, no doubt could be entertained that the nitrogen at the anode was a secondary result, depending upon the chemical action of the nascent oxygen, determined to that surface by the electric current, upon the ammonia in solution. It was the water, therefore, which was electrolyzed, not the ammonia. Further, the experiment gives no real indication of the tendency of the element nitrogen to either one electrode or the other; nor do I know of any experiment with nitric acid, or other compounds of nitrogen, which shows the tendency of this element, under the influence of the electric current, to pass in either direction along its course.
749. As another illustration of secondary results, the effects on a solution of acetate of potassa, may be quoted. When a very strong solution was used, more gas was evolved at the anode than at the cathode, in the proportion of 4 to 3 nearly: that from the anode was a mixture of carbonic oxide and carbonic acid; that from the cathode pure hydrogen. When a much weaker solution was used, less gas was evolved at the anode than at the cathode; and it now contained carburetted hydrogen, as well as carbonic oxide and carbonic acid. This result of carburetted hydrogen at the positive electrode has a very anomalous appearance, if considered as an immediate consequence of the decomposing power of the current. It, however, as well as the carbonic oxide and acid, is only a secondary result; for it is the water alone which suffers electro-decomposition, and it is the oxygen eliminated at the anode which, reacting on the acetic acid, in the midst of which it is evolved, produces those substances that finally appear there. This is fully proved by experiments with the volta-electrometer (707.); for then the hydrogen evolved from the acetate at the cathode is always found to be definite, being exactly proportionate to the electricity which has passed through the solution, and, in quantity, the same as the hydrogen evolved in the volta-electrometer itself. The appearance of the carbon in combination with the hydrogen at the positive electrode, and its non-appearance at the negative electrode, are in curious contrast with the results which might have been expected from the law usually accepted respecting the final places of the elements.
750. If the salt in solution be an acetate of lead, then the results at both electrodes are secondary, and cannot be used to estimate or express the amount of electro-chemical action, except by a circuitous process (843.). In place of oxygen or even the gases already described (749.), peroxide of lead now appears at the positive, and lead itself at the negative electrode. When other metallic solutions are used, containing, for instance, peroxides, as that of copper, combined with this or any other decomposable acid, still more complicated results will be obtained; which, viewed as direct results of the electro-chemical action, will, in their proportions, present nothing but confusion, but will appear perfectly harmonious and simple if they be considered as secondary results, and will accord in their proportions with the oxygen and hydrogen evolved from water by the action of a definite quantity of electricity.
751. I have experimented upon many bodies, with a view to determine whether the results were primary or secondary. I have been surprised to find how many of them, in ordinary cases, are of the latter class, and how frequently water is the only body electrolyzed in instances where other substances have been supposed to give way. Some of these results I will give in as few words as possible.
752. Nitric acid.—When very strong, it conducted well, and yielded oxygen at the positive electrode. No gas appeared at the negative electrode; but nitrous acid, and apparently nitric oxide, were formed there, which, dissolving, rendered the acid yellow or red, and at last even effervescent, from the spontaneous separation of nitric oxide. Upon diluting the acid with its bulk or more of water, gas appeared at the negative electrode. Its quantity could be varied by variations, either in the strength of the acid or of the voltaic current: for that acid from which no gas separated at the cathode, with a weak voltaic battery, did evolve gas there with a stronger; and that battery which evolved no gas there with a strong acid, did cause its evolution with an acid more dilute. The gas at the anode was always oxygen; that at the cathode hydrogen. When the quantity of products was examined by the volta-electrometer (707.), the oxygen, whether from strong or weak acid, proved to be in the same proportion as from water. When the acid was diluted to specific gravity 1.24, or less, the hydrogen also proved to be the same in quantity as from water. Hence I conclude that the nitric acid does not undergo electrolyzation, but the water only; that the oxygen at the anode is always a primary result, but that the products at the cathode are often secondary, and due to the reaction of the hydrogen upon the nitric acid.
753. Nitre.—A solution of this salt yields very variable results, according as one or other form of tube is used, or as the electrodes are large or small. Sometimes the whole of the hydrogen of the water decomposed may be obtained at the negative electrode; at other times, only a part of it, because of the ready formation of secondary results. The solution is a very excellent conductor of electricity.
754. Nitrate of ammonia, in aqueous solution, gives rise to secondary results very varied and uncertain in their proportions.
755. Sulphurous acid.—Pure liquid sulphurous acid does not conduct nor suffer decomposition by the voltaic current[A], but, when dissolved in water, the solution acquires conducting power, and is decomposed, yielding oxygen at the anode, and hydrogen and sulphur at the cathode.
[A] See also De la Rive, Bibliotheque Universelle, tom. xl. p. 205; or Quarterly Journal of Science, vol. xxvii. p, 407.
756. A solution containing sulphuric acid in addition to the sulphurous acid, was a better conductor. It gave very little gas at either electrode: that at the anode was oxygen, that at the cathode pure hydrogen. From the cathode also rose a white turbid stream, consisting of diffused sulphur, which soon rendered the whole solution milky. The volumes of gases were in no regular proportion to the quantities evolved from water in the voltameter. I conclude that the sulphurous acid was not at all affected by the electric current in any of these cases, and that the water present was the only body electro-chemically decomposed; that, at the anode, the oxygen from the water converted the sulphurous acid into sulphuric acid, and, at the cathode, the hydrogen electrically evolved decomposed the sulphurous acid, combining with its oxygen, and setting its sulphur free. I conclude that the sulphur at the negative electrode was only a secondary result; and, in fact, no part of it was found combined with the small portion of hydrogen which escaped when weak solutions of sulphurous acid were used.
757. Sulphuric acid.—I have already given my reasons for concluding that sulphuric acid is not electrolyzable, i.e. not decomposable directly by the electric current, but occasionally suffering by a secondary action at the cathode from the hydrogen evolved there (681.). In the year 1800, Davy considered the sulphur from sulphuric acid as the result of the action of the nascent hydrogen[A]. In 1804, Hisinger and Berzelius stated that it was the direct result of the action of the voltaic pile[B], an opinion which from that time Davy seems to have adopted, and which has since been commonly received by all. The change of my own opinion requires that I should correct what I have already said of the decomposition of sulphuric acid in a former series of these Researches (552.): I do not now think that the appearance of the sulphur at the negative electrode is an immediate consequence of electrolytic action.
[A] Nicholson's Quarterly Journal, vol. iv. pp. 280, 281.
[B] Annales de Chimie, 1804, tom. li. p. 173.
758. Muriatic acid.—A strong solution gave hydrogen at the negative electrode, and chlorine only at the positive electrode; of the latter, a part acted on the platina and a part was dissolved. A minute bubble of gas remained; it was not oxygen, but probably air previously held in solution.
759. It was an important matter to determine whether the chlorine was a primary result, or only a secondary product, due to the action of the oxygen evolved from water at the anode upon the muriatic acid; i.e. whether the muriatic acid was electrolyzable, and if so, whether the decomposition was definite.
760. The muriatic acid was gradually diluted. One part with six of water gave only chlorine at the anode. One part with eight of water gave only chlorine; with nine of water, a little oxygen appeared with the chlorine; but the occurrence or non-occurrence of oxygen at these strengths depended, in part, on the strength of the voltaic battery used. With fifteen parts of water, a little oxygen, with much chlorine, was evolved at the anode. As the solution was now becoming a bad conductor of electricity, sulphuric acid was added to it: this caused more ready decomposition, but did not sensibly alter the proportion of chlorine and oxygen.
761. The muriatic acid was now diluted with 100 times its volume of dilute sulphuric acid. It still gave a large proportion of chlorine at the anode, mingled with oxygen; and the result was the same, whether a voltaic battery of 40 pairs of plates or one containing only 5 pairs were used. With acid of this strength, the oxygen evolved at the anode was to the hydrogen at the cathode, in volume, as 17 is to 64; and therefore the chlorine would have been 30 volumes, had it not been dissolved by the fluid.
762. Next with respect to the quantity of elements evolved. On using the volta-electrometer, it was found that, whether the strongest or the weakest muriatic acid were used, whether chlorine alone or chlorine mingled with oxygen appeared at the anode, still the hydrogen evolved at the cathode was a constant quantity, i.e. exactly the same as the hydrogen which the same quantity of electricity could evolve from water.
763. This constancy does not decide whether the muriatic acid is electrolyzed or not, although it proves that if so, it must be in definite proportions to the quantity of electricity used. Other considerations may, however, be allowed to decide the point. The analogy between chlorine and oxygen, in their relations to hydrogen, is so strong, as to lead almost to the certainty, that, when combined with that element, they would perform similar parts in the process of electro-decomposition. They both unite with it in single proportional or equivalent quantities; and the number of proportionals appearing to have an intimate and important relation to the decomposability of a body (697.), those in muriatic acid, as well as in water, are the most favourable, or those perhaps even necessary, to decomposition. In other binary compounds of chlorine also, where nothing equivocal depending on the simultaneous presence of it and oxygen is involved, the chlorine is directly eliminated at the anode by the electric current. Such is the case with the chloride of lead (395.), which may be justly compared with protoxide of lead (402.), and stands in the same relation to it as muriatic acid to water. The chlorides of potassium, sodium, barium, &c., are in the same relation to the protoxides of the same metals and present the same results under the influence of the electric current (402.).
764. From all the experiments, combined with these considerations, I conclude that muriatic acid is decomposed by the direct influence of the electric current, and that the quantities evolved are, and therefore the chemical action is, definite for a definite quantity of electricity. For though I have not collected and measured the chlorine, in its separate state, at the anode, there can exist no doubt as to its being proportional to the hydrogen at the cathode; and the results are therefore sufficient to establish the general law of constant electro-chemical action in the case of muriatic acid.
765. In the dilute acid (761.), I conclude that a part of the water is electro-chemically decomposed, giving origin to the oxygen, which appears mingled with the chlorine at the anode. The oxygen may be viewed as a secondary result; but I incline to believe that it is not so; for, if it were, it might be expected in largest proportion from the stronger acid, whereas the reverse is the fact. This consideration, with others, also leads me to conclude that muriatic acid is more easily decomposed by the electric current than water; since, even when diluted with eight or nine times its quantity of the latter fluid, it alone gives way, the water remaining unaffected.
766. Chlorides.—On using solutions of chlorides in water,—for instance, the chlorides of sodium or calcium,—there was evolution of chlorine only at the positive electrode, and of hydrogen, with the oxide of the base, as soda or lime, at the negative electrode. The process of decomposition may be viewed as proceeding in two or three ways, all terminating in the same results. Perhaps the simplest is to consider the chloride as the substance electrolyzed, its chlorine being determined to and evolved at the anode, and its metal passing to the cathode, where, finding no more chlorine, it acts upon the water, producing hydrogen and an oxide as secondary results. As the discussion would detain me from more important matter, and is not of immediate consequence, I shall defer it for the present. It is, however, of great consequence to state, that, on using the volta-electrometer, the hydrogen in both cases was definite; and if the results do not prove the definite decomposition of chlorides, (which shall be proved elsewhere,—789. 794. 814.,) they are not in the slightest degree opposed to such a conclusion, and do support the general law.
767. Hydriodic acid.—A solution of hydriodic acid was affected exactly in the same manner as muriatic acid. When strong, hydrogen was evolved at the negative electrode, in definite proportion to the quantity of electricity which had passed, i.e. in the same proportion as was evolved by the same current from water; and iodine without any oxygen was evolved at the positive electrode. But when diluted, small quantities of oxygen appeared with the iodine at the anode, the proportion of hydrogen at the cathode remaining undisturbed.
768. I believe the decomposition of the hydriodic acid in this case to be direct, for the reasons already given respecting muriatic acid (763. 764.).
769. Iodides.—A solution of iodide of potassium being subjected to the voltaic current, iodine appeared at the positive electrode (without any oxygen), and hydrogen with free alkali at the negative electrode. The same observations as to the mode of decomposition are applicable here as were made in relation to the chlorides when in solution (766.).
770. Hydro-fluoric acid and fluorides.—Solution of hydrofluoric acid did not appear to be decomposed under the influence of the electric current: it was the water which gave way apparently. The fused fluorides were electrolysed (417.); but having during these actions obtained fluorine in the separate state, I think it better to refer to a future series of these Researches, in which I purpose giving a fuller account of the results than would be consistent with propriety here[A].
[A] I have not obtained fluorine: my expectations, amounting to conviction, passed away one by one when subjected to rigorous examination; some very singular results were obtained; and to one of these I refer at 1340.—Dec. 1838.
771. Hydro-cyanic acid in solution conducts very badly. The definite proportion of hydrogen (equal to that from water) was set free at the cathode, whilst at the anode a small quantity of oxygen was evolved and apparently a solution of cyanogen formed. The action altogether corresponded with that on a dilute muriatic or hydriodic acid. When the hydrocyanic acid was made a better conductor by sulphuric acid, the same results occurred.
Cyanides.—With a solution of the cyanide of potassium, the result was precisely the same as with a chloride or iodide. No oxygen was evolved at the positive electrode, but a brown solution formed there. For the reasons given when speaking of the chlorides (766.), and because a fused cyanide of potassium evolves cyanogen at the positive electrode[A], I incline to believe that the cyanide in solution is directly decomposed.
[A] It is a very remarkable thing to see carbon and nitrogen in this case determined powerfully towards the positive surface of the voltaic battery; but it is perfectly in harmony with the theory of electro-chemical decomposition which I have advanced.
772. Ferro-cyanic acid and the ferro-cyanides, as also sulpho-cyanic acid and the sulpho-cyanides, presented results corresponding with those just described (771.).
773. Acetic acid.—Glacial acetic acid, when fused (405.), is not decomposed by, nor does it conduct, electricity. On adding a little water to it, still there were no signs of action; on adding more water, it acted slowly and about as pure water would do. Dilute sulphuric acid was added to it in order to make it a better conductor; then the definite proportion of hydrogen was evolved at the cathode, and a mixture of oxygen in very deficient quantity, with carbonic acid, and a little carbonic oxide, at the anode. Hence it appears that acetic acid is not electrolyzable, but that a portion of it is decomposed by the oxygen evolved at the anode, producing secondary results, varying with the strength of the acid, the intensity of the current, and other circumstances.
774. Acetates.—One of these has been referred to already, as affording only secondary results relative to the acetic acid (749.). With many of the metallic acetates the results at both electrodes are secondary (746. 750.).
Acetate of soda fused and anhydrous is directly decomposed, being, as I believe, a true electrolyte, and evolving soda and acetic acid at the cathode and anode. These however have no sensible duration, but are immediately resolved into other substances; charcoal, sodiuretted hydrogen, &c., being set free at the former, and, as far as I could judge under the circumstances, acetic acid mingled with carbonic oxide, carbonic acid, &c. at the latter.
775. Tartaric acid.—Pure solution of tartaric acid is almost as bad a conductor as pure water. On adding sulphuric acid, it conducted well, the results at the positive electrode being primary or secondary in different proportions, according to variations in the strength of the acid and the power of the electric current (752.). Alkaline tartrates gave a large proportion of secondary results at the positive electrode. The hydrogen at the negative electrode remained constant unless certain triple metallic salts were used.
776. Solutions, of salts containing other vegetable acids, as the benzoates; of sugar, gum, &c., dissolved in dilute sulphuric acid; of resin, albumen, &c., dissolved in alkalies, were in turn submitted to the electrolytic power of the voltaic current. In all these cases, secondary results to a greater or smaller extent were produced at the positive electrode.
777. In concluding this division of these Researches, it cannot but occur to the mind that the final result of the action of the electric current upon substances, placed between the electrodes, instead of being simple may be very complicated. There are two modes by which these substances may be decomposed, either by the direct force of the electric current, or by the action of bodies which that current may evolve. There are also two modes by which new compounds may be formed, i.e. by combination of the evolving substances whilst in their nascent state (658.), directly with the matter of the electrode; or else their combination with those bodies, which being contained in, or associated with, the body suffering decomposition, are necessarily present at the anode and cathode. The complexity is rendered still greater by the circumstance that two or more of these actions may occur simultaneously, and also in variable proportions to each other. But it may in a great measure be resolved by attention to the principles already laid down (747.).
778. When aqueous solutions of bodies are used, secondary results are exceedingly frequent. Even when the water is not present in large quantity, but is merely that of combination, still secondary results often ensue: for instance, it is very possible that in Sir Humphry Davy's decomposition of the hydrates of potassa and soda, a part of the potassium produced was the result of a secondary action. Hence, also, a frequent cause for the disappearance of the oxygen and hydrogen which would otherwise be evolved: and when hydrogen does not appear at the cathode in an aqueous solution, it perhaps always indicates that a secondary action has taken place there. No exception to this rule has as yet occurred to my observation.
779. Secondary actions are not confined to aqueous solutions, or cases where water is present. For instance, various chlorides acted upon, when fused (402.), by platina electrodes, have the chlorine determined electrically to the anode. In many cases, as with the chlorides of lead, potassium, barium, &c., the chlorine acts on the platina and forms a compound with it, which dissolves; but when protochloride of tin is used, the chlorine at the anode does not act upon the platina, but upon the chloride already there, forming a perchloride which rises in vapour (790. 804.). These are, therefore, instances of secondary actions of both kinds, produced in bodies containing no water.
780. The production of boron from fused borax (402. 417.) is also a case of secondary action; for boracic acid is not decomposable by electricity (408.), and it was the sodium evolved at the cathode which, re-acting on the boracic acid around it, took oxygen from it and set boron free in the experiments formerly described.
781. Secondary actions have already, in the hands of M. Becquerel, produced many interesting results in the formation of compounds; some of them new, others imitations of those occurring naturally[A]. It is probable they may prove equally interesting in an opposite direction, i.e. as affording cases of analytic decomposition. Much information regarding the composition, and perhaps even the arrangement, of the particles of such bodies as the vegetable acids and alkalies, and organic compounds generally, will probably be obtained by submitting them to the action of nascent oxygen, hydrogen, chlorine, &c. at the electrodes; and the action seems the more promising, because of the thorough command which we possess over attendant circumstances, such as the strength of the current, the size of the electrodes, the nature of the decomposing conductor, its strength, &c., all of which may be expected to have their corresponding influence upon the final result.