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Vinegar Batteries

In this Activity, students make their own electrochemical cells using vinegar and common household metals. Using a multimeter, students measure the current flowing through their circuits. In groups, students connect their cells in series to create a battery and light up an LED.

Electrochemical cells are one way of creating an electric current. These type of cells use stored chemical energy to move electrons. More than one cell together, this stored energy is called a battery. If we put many cells together, we can cause enough electrons to move through the circuit and we can light up a lamp, turn on the TV or play the stereo.

One way to measure the strength of these batteries is to measure its voltage. Voltage is the amount of potential energy available to move electrons from one part of a circuit to another.

Eventually, the cells will run out of the stored energy in their chemicals, and electrons will no longer be given up to flow in the circuit. The batteries will be "dead". We can simply dismantle this electrochemical cell and use or dispose of the components. We need to dispose of non-rechargable, commercially-made cells at a recycling facility or recharge them. 

Objectives

  • Describe the parts of a complete circuit and explain the path of electron flow.

  • Measure voltage of an electrochemical cell.

Materials

  • Per Student Pair:
    small disposable cups (or film canisters)
    vinegar
    copper wire
    galvanized (zinc-coated) nails
    wires with alligator clips
    low current and low voltage LEDs

  • Per Class Or Group:
    multimeter to measure voltage

Key Questions

  • What happens to the voltage when two electrochemical cells are linked in series? Three cells?
  • Do the LED lights get brighter as you add more cells?

What To Do

  1. Students should work in pairs to make electrochemical cells.
  2. In a disposable cup or film canister, place one zinc-coated (galvanized) nail and one strip of copper wire. These are the electrodes.
  3. Fill the cup with vinegar (this is your electrolyte), so that the electrodes are submerged. Make sure the nail and copper wires are not touching.
  4. Use wires with alligator clips to connect one end of the multimeter to the nail and the other end to the copper wire.
  5. Measure the voltage.
  6. Using alligator clips, connect two electrochemical cells in series (the zinc of one cell to the copper or another cell).
  7. Measure the voltage between the end leads of the battery.
  8. Connect four or five cells in series and measure the voltage.
  9. With four or five cells in series, connect the end leads to an LED. The LED should light up.

LED TROUBLESHOOTING:
LED’s are directional dependant, meaning they will work only if the leads are connected to a circuit in the right orientation. If an LED initially does not light up and the multimeter is reading a sufficient current and voltage, simply switch the leads. Alternatively, use normal low voltage and low current light bulbs.

Extensions

  • Discuss and examine alternate methods of creating electricity.