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The University of Southampton

Young scientists encounter hands-on experiments at Electrochemical Circus

Published: 20 May 2021

Electrochemistry researchers at the University of Southampton have created an innovative collection of portable, hands-on activities that reveal the subject’s importance in our daily lives.

The Electrochemical Circus was established by Gill Reid, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and President-Elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and her colleagues in response to research that teachers find electrochemistry the trickiest topic to teach in schools.

Electrochemistry is the study of the flow of electrons and their impact on chemistry. The flow of electrons from a power source can drive chemical reactions that would otherwise not happen or would be very slow, such as coating car parts with nickel. The flow of electrons from a chemical reaction can also be measured, such as measuring sugar in a blood glucose sensor.

“The great thing about electrochemistry research is that it can be brought to life in some really innovative and hands-on ways,” Gill says. “Our key aim with any engagement is to widen access to chemistry knowledge and activities for young people.”

The Electrochemical Circus demonstrates several key concepts of research, including electrochemistry, nanotechnology, materials physics and electronics.

Participants can try ‘gold fingerprinting’ to learn how gold is electroplated from solution by allowing the solution to fill, atom by atom, the template created by their own fingerprint. Another feature is the Suitcase of Curiosities – a collection of visually appealing, interesting-to-touch items that demonstrate electrodeposition, such as using lemons to demonstrate how batteries work.

A hands-on Water Transistor demonstrates how tiny and extremely fast electrical switches operate at the core of all computers. The Transistor uses water to represent electrical charge, with pressurised squeezing affecting flow through a long, thin balloon.

The Electrochemical Circus and Water Transistor have reached more than 100,000 people at science events and festivals. The full-scale, six metre long and two metre high exhibit is installed at the Winchester Science Centre.

David Read, Professorial Fellow in Chemical Education, Director of Outreach and School Teacher Fellow, says: “We were very interested to learn the teachers were struggling to convey the importance of electrochemistry and its relevance to everyday life to their students.

“We were confident that our research into new electrochemical processes for the development of smaller-faster-smarter electronic devices would be of interest to young people because those devices are so integral to their lives. We want to inspire teachers and students to discover the role of research in chemistry and how it plays into our every day.”

Pioneering interdisciplinary research at Southampton is leading to significant advances in the field of electrochemistry, in particular in electrodeposition. Since 2011, the University has received two Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) programme grants worth a combined £11.5 million, along with responsive mode grants totalling £1.7 million.

Read the full article in the latest edition of Re:action, the University’s research and enterprise magazine.  

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