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A galvanic cell used to derive energy from redox reactions.

Electrolytes are substances that conduct electricity because of dissociation in positively and negatively charged particles or ions. The move towards and usually discharge at negative and positive places of electric circuits.[1] They are electrical charges that are minerals in blood and other bodily fluids. Electrolytes affect the amount of water in the body, the acidity or pH of blood, and muscle function. By drinking fluids with electrolytes in them, can replace the electrolytes you lose when you sweat. They can be acids, bases, and salts and can be tested by blood tests. Urine tests can help measure the levels of calcium, chloride, potassium, sodium, and other electrolytes within the body.[2]


Electrolytes are salts or ions in the blood of the body that carry a charge. Polyelectrolytes are biological polymers that give a solution of electrolytes and contain charged functional groups. An electrolyte solution can result from placing a salt into water (or the solvent of the solution) and as the salt components dissociate, the process of solvation occurs. For example, when carbon dioxide gas dissolves in water, it produces hydrogen carbonate ions, carbonate ions, and hydronium ions. Electrolytes can also be in the state of melted salts, such as molten sodium chloride melting into a liquid state that can conduct electricity. If an electrolyte in a solution has a high number of ions it is concentrated. If the number of ions has a low number it is diluted. Therefore, the electrolyte is strong if a large amount of the solute dissociates, but if the electrolyte is weak, a small portion of the solute will dissociate.[3]

Since electrolytes all give off ions when they are dissolved, they can be divided into acids, bases, and salts. Their positive and negative ions (known as cations and anions), conduct electricity because of their mobility. Cations and anions meet each other when the solutions of electrolytes are combined. There is no reaction within the solutions when the ions are indifferent of each other. Occasionally, cations and anions may form molecules or solids and then the cations and anions change partners.[4] Electrolytes are important because your cells (mostly nerve, heart, muscle) keep voltages across their cell membranes. Electrical impulses (nerve impulses, muscle contractions) are carried across the membranes and to other cells. Despite changes in the body, kidneys keep the electrolyte concentrations in the body balanced. For example when you work out and sweat, you lose electrolytes in the water coming out of your body (especially sodium and potassium). To maintain normality in the body, these electrolytes must be replaced.[5]

Functions in the Body

Gatorade is an example of a drink full of electrolytes that can replenish the body.
A young boy sweating, losing electrolytes (especially potassium and sodium) in the body that he will need to replenish.

The main electrolytes in biological systems are: Sodium (Na+), Potassium (K+), Calcium (Ca2+), Magnesium (Mg2+), Chloride (Cl-), Hydrogen Phosphate (HPO42-), Hydrogen Carbonate (HCO3-). The negative and positive charges of the ionic nature of the substances are indicated by the plus and minus signs as a result of dissociation. The electrolytes are an essential part to keep the body functioning normally and helps to balance the body. An imbalance of electrolytes can be dangerous and in some cases life threatening depending on the scenario. People should carefully and often maintain and check up on their levels of electrolytes in their bodies. They can check their health with electrolytes by their blood or urine. Most of the time electrolyte loss causes vomiting, diarrhea, and/or sweating. You may replenish your levels by drinking beverages full of electrolytes such as Gatorade or PowerAde or in some serious cases, visit the hospital to get an IV of electrolytes.[3]

The balance needs to be maintained between intracellular and extracellular environments.[6] The osmotic gradient is the passage where a solvent can go through a semipermeable membrane from less concentrated areas to more concentrated solutions until both of the solutions are at the same concentration[7]. It must be carefully watched to ensure healthy pH's in blood and to stay hydrated. These factors help the proper function of muscles and nerves. Muscles and nerves both can be stimulated intercellular, interstitial and extracellular fluid activity. Electrolytes are transported to and from the cell by ions channels that exist on the surface of the cell membrane. For instance muscle contractions depend on the presence of potassium, calcium, and sodium in the blood and body. With little amounts of these in your body, weakness and spasms can occur in the muscles. [6]


Swedish Chemist, Svante Arrhenius.
Main Article: Electrochemistry

Electrochemistry is the study of how and where electrons move by chemical processes. Electricity causes this movement of electrons which can generate movements of electrons from one element to another known as an oxidation or redox reaction.[8] Solvation is the process that forms electrolytes when salt compound components dissociate. There are several factors of electrolytes that can be used in electrolysis that can extract and separate elements and compounds in a solution. Electricity is produced and conducted when voltage is applied to electrolytes from electrodes. Electrons by themselves cannot pass through electrolytes. Instead, chemical reactions take place at the cathode due to extra electrons or the consumption of free electrons. A negative charge cloud is created by a chemical reaction a the anode that leads electrons transferring to the cathode. Electrolyte ions move because of their electrical charge and they neutralize the charges to continue the reaction and keep the electrons flowing.[9]

Svante Arrhenius assisted Professor E. Edlund with his work on electromotive force measurements in spark discharges, but soon found an interest of his own resulting in his thesis. In 1884, his thesis, Recherches sur la conductibilité galvanique des électrolytes (Investigations on the galvanic conductivity of electrolytes), helped him to conclude that when electrolytes dissolve in water, they can dissociate into positive and negative electrically opposite ions. The degree of dissociation depends of the concentration and nature of the substance (the dilution is greater the more developed it is).[10] Electrochemistry is the interconversion of electrical and chemical energy. It always involves oxidation-reduction processes.[11]


Nurse describing the importance of electrolytes in the human body.


  1. Electrolyte Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. Last accessed May 1, 2016. Unknown Author.
  2. Martin, Laura J, MD, MPH. Electrolytes Medicine Plus. Web. Last Updated August 29, 2015.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Dr. Mandal, Ananya, MD. What is an Electrolyte? News Medical. Web. Last Updated June 2, 2014.
  4. Electrolytes UWaterloo. Web. Last Accessed on April 17, 2016. Unknown Author.
  5. What are Electrolytes? How Stuff Works. Web. Last Accessed on April 17, 2016. Unknown Author.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Dr. Mandal, Ananya, MD. Electrolyte Health Importance News Medical. Web. Last Updated June 2, 2014.
  7. Osmosis Reverso-Softissimo. Web. Accessed on April 17, 2016. Unknown Author.
  8. Electrochemistry Basics UC Davis Chemwiki. Web. Last accessed May 1, 2016. Unknown Author.
  9. Dr. Mandal, Ananya, MD Electrolyte Electrochemistry News Medical. Web. Last Updated June 2, 2014.
  10. Svante Arrhenius - Biographical Web. Last Accessed on May 1, 2016. Unknown Author.
  11. Ladon, L. Electrochemistry Web. Last Accessed on May 1, 2016.