Alessandro Volta discovered methane, invented first electrochemical cell

Alessandro Volta – discoverer of methane

Alessandro Volta

Biography & Contributions

Alessandro Volta (Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta) was an Italian physicist born on February 18, 1745 – died on March 7, 1827. Volta was considered as a pioneer of electrical science and inventor of voltaic pile.

Alessandro Volta’s invention of the electric battery provided the first source of continuous current. In 1775 Volta’s interest in electricity led him to invent the electrophorus, a device used to generate static electricity.

He showed that all conductors liquid and solid might be divided into two classes, which he called respectively conductors of the first and of the second class, the first embracing metals, and carbon in its conducting form, and the second class, water, aqueous solutions of various kinds, and generally those now called electrolytes.

He improved and popularized the electrophorus, a device that produced static electricity. In November 1776, he found methane at Lake Maggiore, and by 1778 he managed to isolate methane. 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.

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 than both copper and hydrogen in the electrochemical series, 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.

Voltaic Pile

Volta's invention built on Luigi Galvani's 1780s discovery of how a circuit of two metals and a frog's leg can cause the frog's leg to respond, Volta demonstrated in 1794 that when two metals and brine-soaked cloth or cardboard are arranged in a circuit they produce an electric current. In 1800, Volta stacked several pairs of alternating copper (or silver) and zinc discs (electrodes) separated by cloth or cardboard soaked in brine (electrolyte) to increase the electrolyte conductivity.

The chemical reactions in this voltaic cell are

Zn → Zn2+ + 2e

2H+ + 2e → H2

The copper does not react, but rather it functions as an electrode for the electric current.


Methane is a chemical compound with the simplest alkane and the main component of natural gas. Methane is a tetrahedral molecule with four equivalent C-H bonds. Its electronic structure is described by four bonding molecular orbitals (MOs) resulting from the overlap of the valence orbitals on C and H.

Methane is used in industrial chemical processes and may be transported as a refrigerated liquid. Methane in the form of compressed natural gas is used as a vehicle fuel and is claimed to be more environmentally friendly than other fossil fuels such as gasoline/petrol and diesel. Methane could also be produced by a non-biological process called serpentinization involving water, carbon dioxide, and the mineral olivine, which is known to be common on Mars.

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