Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (18 February 1745 – 5 March 1827) was an Italian physicist, chemist, and a pioneer of electricity and power, who is credited as the inventor of the electrical battery and the discoverer of methane. He invented the Voltaic pile in 1799 and the results of which he reported in 1800 in a two-part letter to the President of the Royal Society. With this invention Volta proved that electricity could be generated chemically and debased the prevalent theory that electricity was generated solely by living beings. Volta’s invention sparked a great amount of scientific excitement and led others to conduct similar experiments which eventually led to the development of the field of electrochemistry.
Alessandro Volta also drew admiration from Napoleon Bonaparte for his invention, and was invited to the Institute of France to demonstrate his invention to the members of the Institute. Volta enjoyed a certain amount of closeness with the Emperor throughout his life and he was conferred numerous honours by him. Alessandro Volta held the chair of experimental physics at the University of Pavia for nearly 40 years and was widely idolised by his students.
Despite his professional success Volta tended to be a person inclined towards domestic life and this was more apparent in his later years. At this time he tended to live secluded from public life and more for the sake of his family until his eventual death in 1827 from a series of illnesses which began in 1823. The SI unit of electric potential is named in his honour as the volt.
Early life and works:
Volta was born in Como, a town in present-day northern Italy (near the Swiss border) on 18 February 1745. In 1794, Volta married an aristocratic lady also from Como, Teresa Peregrini, with whom he raised three sons: Zanino, Flaminio, and Luigi. His own father Filippo Volta was of noble lineage. His mother Donna Maddalena came from the family of the Inzaghis.
In 1774, he became a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como. A year later, he improved and popularised the electrophorus, a device that produced static electricity. His promotion of it was so extensive that he is often credited with its invention, even though a machine operating on the same principle was described in 1762 by the Swedish experimenter Johan Wilcke. In 1777, he travelled through Switzerland. There he befriended H. B. de Saussure.
In the years between 1776 and 1778, Volta studied the chemistry of gases. He researched and discovered methane after reading a paper by Benjamin Franklin of United States on “flammable air”. In November 1776, he found methane at Lake Maggiore, and by 1778 he managed to isolate methane. He devised experiments such as the ignition of methane by an electric spark in a closed vessel. Volta also studied what we now call electrical capacitance, developing separate means to study both electrical potential (V) and charge (Q), and discovering that for a given object, they are proportional. This is called Volta’s Law of Capacitance, and it was for this work the unit of electrical potential has been named the volt.
In 1779 he became a professor of experimental physics at the University of Pavia, a chair that he occupied for almost 40 years.
In announcing his discovery of the voltaic pile, Volta paid tribute to the influences of William Nicholson, Tiberius Cavallo, and Abraham Bennet.
The battery made by Volta is credited as the first electrochemical cell. It consists of two electrodes: one made of zinc, the other of copper. The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water or a form of saltwater brine. The electrolyte exists in the form 2H+ and SO42−. The zinc, which is higher in the electrochemical series than both copper and hydrogen, reacts with the negatively charged sulfate (SO42−). The positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) capture electrons from the copper, forming bubbles of hydrogen gas, H2. This makes the zinc rod the negative electrode and the copper rod the positive electrode.
Thus, there are two terminals, and an electric current will flow if they are connected. The chemical reactions in this voltaic cell are as follows:
Zn → Zn2+ + 2e−
2H+ + 2e− → H2
The copper does not react, but rather it functions as an electrode for the electric current.
However, this cell also has some disadvantages. It is unsafe to handle, since sulfuric acid, even if diluted, can be hazardous. Also, the power of the cell diminishes over time because the hydrogen gas is not released. Instead, it accumulates on the surface of the zinc electrode and forms a barrier between the metal and the electrolyte solution.