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The National MagLab is funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida.

Simple Electrical Cell

The simple electrical cell explained here is the most basic type of "wet" cell and demonstrates the fundamental chemistry behind batteries.

The simple voltaic (or galvanic) electrical cell was developed in the early 1800s.

The arrangement consists of two metals partially submerged in an electrolyte (a solution containing ions, particles that carry either a negative or positive charge). The electrolyte used in this example is sulfuric acid (H2SO4). A wire connects the dry ends of the metals.

This setup turns chemistry into usable electricity courtesy of the processes of oxidation and reduction.


  1. Notice the two strips of metal: zinc on the right and copper on the left. They are submerged in an electrolyte, sulfuric acid.
  2. A wire connects the two metals, creating a circuit.
  3. The metals react to the electrolyte by dissolving into positive ions. Zinc dissolves more quickly than copper. So there are more positive ions, depicted as gray particles, around the zinc than around the copper. This creates a voltage. Notice that it lights up the red LED bulb.

The extra electrons (depicted here as yellow particles) that have built up in the zinc are drawn to the copper, which, by comparison, is electron deficient. This flow is what produces electricity.

In this setup, the zinc is the anode – the “negative” electrode where oxidation (giving away those electrons) occurs; the copper is the cathode – the “positive” electrode at which reduction (accepting those donated electrons) occurs.