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What Is An Electrolyte And What Is It For?

An electrolyte is a substance that dissociates into ions when it dissolves or melts, making it electrically conductive. It is a material that dissolves in water to produce a solution that conducts an electric current.

What is an electrolyte and what is it for?

This term is used in various fields of science and technology, with related but not identical meanings between the various disciplines.

  • Electrical engineering: the medium in batteries, accumulators, or capacitors.

  • Chemistry: Substances that fully or partially divide into ions during dissolution or fusion and therefore conduct electrical current.

  • Physiology: Simple ions that dissolve in blood or intracellular tissue.

The term refers to the ability to conduct electricity thanks to the intervention of ions. Therefore, an electrolyte constitutes what is called an ionic conductor or, alternatively, a second species conductor.

Electric current conductors

They are capable of conducting electrical current once dissolved in solution. This property is due to the presence of positive and negative ions generated in the solution. The presence of ions is derived from the dissociation and ionization of the electrolyte.

Conduction is not linked to the free flow of electrons within a crystal structure. instead, it is the ions that "charge" the electrical current.

An electrochemical cell can contain two different electrolytes electrically connected by a salt bridge or a porous partition; in this case, 

  • if it is in contact with the cathode it is called a catholyte, 

  • if it is in contact with the anode it is called an anolyte.

Why is electrolyte important in the battery?

The electrochemical processes that produce electricity take place in lead-acid batteries. These processes are only possible with the direct participation of them.

The battery has negative and positively charged plates. They can have different additives on which the type of battery depends.

The degree of charge of the battery depends on the density of the electrolyte. Raising it will charge the battery, and an aggressive environment can generally damage the battery. When lowered, the battery is discharged.

How to check the electrolyte level in the battery

Most battery banks have a scale with a MIN and MAX value in this range should be the electrolyte. There are models with plastic tabs under the corks that drop into the cans, they should be dipped in a 5mm liquid.

Modern batteries are equipped with a special sensor in the housing, which indicates whether it is between the appropriate levels and the amount of battery discharged.

Electrolytes in health

Electrolytes are minerals present in the blood and other bodily fluids that carry an electrical charge. The body needs them because they help maintain the body's balance.

For example, they are important for maintaining osmotic balance (important for, for example, moisture balance in cells and elimination of waste products) and muscle contraction.

The main electrolytes in the human body are divided between those that are positively charged and those that are negatively charged:

  • Positively charged (cations): sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium.

  • Negatively charged (anions): chloride and bicarbonate. Most of the carbon dioxide in your body is in the form of bicarbonate.

To avoid dehydration, you should drink water and electrolyte solutions to replace fluids lost by vomiting. 

Chronic kidney diseases compromise the regulatory functions, resulting in alterations in electrolyte and acid-base balance that can be life-threatening.

Electrolyte imbalance, or water-electrolyte imbalance, is an abnormality in the concentration of electrolytes in the body.

Electrolyte replacement is needed when a person has prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, and as a response to strenuous athletic activity.

Decreasing sodium intake is one way to lower blood pressure.

In a blood testing, low levels can cause:

  • Irregularities in heart rhythm.

  • Confusion.

  • Changes in blood pressure.

  • Nervous system disorders.

  • In the bones, long-term.

Electrolyte loss during physical exercise

You can lose a lot of them during exercise. The main one forms body fluids like sweat. A shortage of certain electrolytes can cause cramps during a competition. The body also retains less moisture, which will reduce its performance.

It is difficult to determine the exact amount of electrolytes to maintain proper function and balance of the body. You get a lot of electrolytes during your daily meals. During sports, a sports oral rehydration can provide some additional electrolytes.

It is important to replace them during exercise that is lost through sweat. In part, muscle performance depends on your presence. That's what sports drinks do.

When blood calcium is depleted, the body extracts it from the bones to restore calcium levels. But this process cannot cope with the rate of exhaustion experienced during exercise.

At best, the body is able to replace about a third of what it loses during exercise. And this is true for fluids as well as for calories and electrolytes. If you try to replace all fluids at once, you may experience dilute hyponatremia (excessively dilute blood sodium levels) or water poisoning.

Chemistry

Electrolytes are chemical compounds that are partially or completely split into ions in a solution or in a molten state, allowing the solution or liquid to conduct electrical current.

A distinction is made between strong and weak electrolytes. With strong ones, the part dissolved in water is completely split into ions. With weak ones, the part dissolved in water is only partially split into ions. This has nothing to do with the solubility.

NaCl (table salt) is very soluble, AgCl is not. In both, the part that is dissolved is completely split into ions. So they are both strong electrolytes. Acetic acid is a weak one yet very soluble. The dissolved part simply does not split further into ions.

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Published: May 13, 2015
Last review: June 21, 2020