The Science of the Spud

1088 Words Mar 25th, 2013 5 Pages
The Science of the Spud — a History of the Potato Battery Experiment
There are hot potatoes, french fried potatoes, baked potatoes and scalloped potatoes. There are potato chips, potato pies and potato soufflés. Last, but not least, there’s the potato battery. Who on earth invented the electric spud? Why does it work? For that matter, why would anyone want to see if a potato could conduct electricity in the first place? Well, we may never be able to answer some of the questions this quirky experiment raises, but a brief overview of the possible origins, quirky chemical compositions and remarkable staying power of the grin-inducing oddity that is the potato battery is sure to be worthwhile.

The potato battery: not your usual sunday
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If it doesn’t rearrange how you’re connecting the wires to the clock, light bulb, etc. Voilà, instant electricity. Granted, it only produces about two volts, maximum, but it works.
Why it Works
Without getting too technical, electricity is the result of a chemical reaction. As a Berkeley teacher’s guide to this experiment demonstrates, the penny is copper, while the galvanized nail is coated in zinc. When zinc, which is negatively charged, comes into contact with an acid, electrons are freed in a chemical reaction. Copper, which is positively charged, accepts those electrons, thereby creating an electric circuit.
What is the acid that makes this little miracle of potato power? It’s the mild phosphoric acid H3PO4, which occurs naturally in potatoes and other starches. Just this acid is enough to cause the release of electrons and their acceptance on the other end of the circuit. Those electrons are the electric flow, an atomic phenomenon that is measurable on your kitchen table.
What it Means
While two volts of electricity isn’t enough to even light a room, the potato battery does show promise. According to Business Wire, Yissum Research Development Company Ltd. has made a spud science breakthrough. It’s hard to believe, but until 2010 no one, apparently, had tried boiling the potato before sticking it full of copper and zinc. Turns out, if you boil the potato, its electrical capacity increases tenfold,
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