Gas station without pumps

2015 April 28

First half of electrode lab a bit long

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:47
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Monday’s lecture went fairly well—I used my post  Comments for class after grading as lecture notes, and pretty much covered everything, though not necessarily in the order presented there.

Today I spent a long time in the lab, from about 9 a.m. to after 6 p.m., because it takes a fair amount of time to set up and clean up when we are dealing with liquids (in this case, salt water) in the electronics lab.  I have to make sure that everything is in secondary containment tubs, so that nothing gets spilled.  (It irks me that the EE faculty don’t bother enforcing the clearly posted “no food or drink” rule on their students, and I’ve had to chide several EE students coming into the lab with cups of coffee and open bowls of food—I often see drink containers in the room trash.  I spend hours making sure that my students don’t spill anything, but the EE students routinely spill their drinks (judging from the mess on the never-cleaned floor.)

I did two demos today: one planned, one unplanned.  The planned demo was of vernier calipers, which the students used to measure their stainless steel electrodes.  The unplanned demo was of what happens if you pass a large current through a salt solution.  I considered that grade-school chemistry (I’m sure I was in grade school when I took two carbon rods from inside batteries and passed a current through them, measuring the amount of H2 and O2 that bubbled off—I even looked at the difference between AC and DC (initially by using Al foil on a turntable to do the switching, but 33rpm (0.55 Hz) was still too high a frequency to get any electrolysis, and I had to switch to a DPDT switch and a watch to manually get something like 0.1Hz to get small amounts of electrolysis. OK, I admit that was a science-fair project (6th grade? 7th?) to measure the amount of electrolysis as a function of frequency, but electrolysis was not a strange subject for middle school students.

No one in the morning class had any idea what would happen if you passed a current through a salt solution, and I couldn’t even get guesses.  In the afternoon class, I badgered the students a bit more and finally got someone to realize that H2 would bubble out, and (after a bit more badgering) got them to predict which electrode this would happen on. With 6V and a 1A limit, I got vigorous bubbling (about 0.6A current drawn), and the other electrode produced a yellowish color in the solution (probably an iron oxide).

Note: all but one or two of these students have taken at least a year of college chemistry that included a full quarter on electrochemistry, but they had never seen a demo of the H2 reaction, despite it’s being the standard reaction of defining half-cell potentials. (Most of them had seen the reaction before, since it happens in gel electrophoresis boxes all the time and nearly all of them have done gel electrophoresis in biochem labs, but not one of them put 2 and 2 together and realized what was going on.)

What prompted the electrolysis demo was students asking why the readings kept changing on their ohmmeters when they tried to measure DC resistance. I tried through socratic questioning to get them to realize that the ohmmeters work by measuring the voltage across the device under test while passing a known current through, and that passing a DC current through an electrode will result in chemistry on the surface of the electrode, changing the electrode properties. I got some groups as far as realizing that there was a current, but no one seemed to realize that having a current meant there must be redox reactions taking place on the surfaces of the electrodes, changing the surface properties.

Did I already mention that almost all of these students have had a quarter of electrochemistry? I wonder what (if anything) is taught in that class! I’ve never taken it, so I’m relying entirely on what I learned in grade school and high-school—I would have thought that a college-level class would have more than what I recall from a high-school sophomore class in the 60s.

The rest of the lab went fairly smoothly, but a number of students saw a change in the behavior of their electrodes at high frequencies. This was unexpected (I’d not see the effect in my versions of the experiments), so I spent some time debugging the problem. I’m pretty sure that the problem was long wires—the students were getting a series inductance added to their electrodes. About 1.5µH would be enough in some cases to cause the observed phenomenon, though in other cases a much larger inductance would seem indicated. For one student, I suggested hooking up a voltmeter right at the electrodes rather than at the other ends of the wires to the electrodes—the saw a 2-fold reduction in voltage at 1MHz, which pretty much cancelled their apparent increase in impedance. We’ll discuss the problem in class tomorrow, and I’ll suggest modeling the electrodes not with just the standard R+(R||C) model but with L+R+(R||C), with the extra L corresponding to the long wires in their test setup.

We used up about half the salt solutions a colleague had made for me, and we’ll use up the other half on Thursday. It seems we need at least 110ml/student, so next year I’ll probably want to get 150ml/student or even 200ml/student, so that we don’t run out. Today we characterized stainless steel electrodes (which are highly polarizable) and on Thursday we’ll characterize Ag/AgCl electrodes (which are non-polarizable). So I’ll have another long day in the lab on Thursday.

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