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Alessandro Volta
Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827)
Pile de Volta
Voltaic pile

Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (18 February 1745 – 5 March 1827) was a Lombard physicist known especially for the development of the first electrical cell in 1800. He was born in Como in Lombardy, Italy.

Volta worked on the electrophorus that makes a static electric charge in 1775. Volta also studied what we now call capacitance, developing separate means to study both electrical potential V and charge Q, and discovering that for a given object they are proportional. This may be called Volta's Law of Capacitance, and likely for this work the unit of electrical potential has been named the volt. Around 1791 he began to study "animal electricity". In this way he discovered Volta's Law of the electrochemical series, and the law that the electromotive force (emf \mathcal{E}) of a galvanic cell. In 1800, he invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, which made a steady electric current. It is credited as the first electrochemical cell.

In honor of his work in the field of electricity, Napoleon made him a count in 1810. A museum in Como, the Voltian Temple, has been built in his honor and exhibits some of the original equipment he used to conduct experiments. In 1881, an important electrical unit, the volt(V), was named in his honor. There have also been innovations and discoveries named after Alessandro Volta including the Chevy Volt, and the Volta Crater on the Moon.

Volta married the daughter of Count Ludovico Peregrini, Teresa. They raised three sons. In 1779 he became professor of experimental physics at the University of Pavia. He had the job for almost 25 years. Volta is buried in the city of Como. At the Tempio Voltiano near Lake Como there is a museum about him and his work.

Volta and Galvani

Luigi Galvani, oil-painting
Luigi Galvani, Volta's rival

Luigi Galvani, an Italian physicist, discovered something he named "animal electricity" when two different metals were connected in series with a frog's leg and to one another. Volta realised that the frog's leg served as both a conductor of electricity (what we would now call an electrolyte) and as a detector of electricity. He replaced the frog's leg with brine-soaked paper, and detected the flow of electricity by other means familiar to him from his previous studies.

In this way he discovered the electrochemical series, and the law that the electromotive force (emf) of a galvanic cell, consisting of a pair of metal electrodes separated by electrolyte, is the difference between their two electrode potentials (thus, two identical electrodes and a common electrolyte give zero net emf). This may be called Volta's Law of the electrochemical series.

In 1800, as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Galvani, Volta invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, which produced a steady electric current. Volta had determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was zinc and copper. Initially he experimented with individual cells in series, each cell being a wine goblet filled with brine into which the two dissimilar electrodes were dipped. The voltaic pile replaced the goblets with cardboard soaked in brine.

Early battery

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 one of the first electrochemical cells. 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.

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 copper electrode and forms a barrier between the metal and the electrolyte solution.

Last years and retirement

Painting of Volta by Bertini (photo)
Volta explains the principle of the "electric column" to Napoleon in 1801

In 1809 Volta became associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands. In honour of his work, Volta was made a count by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810.

Volta retired in 1819 to his estate in Camnago, a frazione of Como, Italy, now named "Camnago Volta" in his honour. He died there on 5 March 1827, just after his 82nd birthday. Volta's remains were buried in Camnago Volta.

Legacy

Volta's legacy is celebrated by the Tempio Voltiano memorial located in the public gardens by the lake. There is also a museum which has been built in his honour, which exhibits some of the equipment that Volta used to conduct experiments. Nearby stands the Villa Olmo, which houses the Voltian Foundation, an organization promoting scientific activities. Volta carried out his experimental studies and produced his first inventions near Como.

His image was depicted on the Italian 10,000 lira note (1990-1997) along with a sketch of his voltaic pile.


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