Dissimilar metals poked into ordinary fruits and vegetables produce a measurable voltage and current. This lab extends lemon batteries to a hands-on illustration of circuit principles, electrochemistry, and LED semiconductors.
The students can make lemon batteries with large enough electrodes so they have significant power capability. They measure voltage and current outputs. Then they connect them in various ways to produce a useful function, such as lighting an LED.
Materials for lemon batteries that have useful power:
- Citrus: Usually lemons, but oranges, small grapefruits etc. seem to all work. People have reported using potatoes, but I am not sure potatoes will provide as much current.
- Zinc metal strips: Galvanized steel sheet is a good source of zinc. 1/32 – inch (0.75 mm) thickness straps are a common building material for joining framing lumber together. Try to find straps that are about 1.25-inch wide (~3 cm). Use a good tin-snips to cut them to 1.25″ x 5″ with a sharp corner at one end, and rounded corners at the other end.
- Copper: .005-inch (~0.012 mm) thick sheet was obtained from a metal-supply store. $5- worth will be a big supply. Snip this into 1.5″ x 5″ pieces. Cut a point at one end. Then bend each strip lengthwise over a table end to stiffen the material, so students can push it into a citrus fruit. Sand or file the long edges if there are any sharp burrs along the sides.
- LEDs. Get different colors, including enough red ones for each group of students, as well as a couple of white LEDs. The type doesn’t seem to be important .
Experimental procedure and potential discoveries:
- The first step is to have each small group of students assemble a lemon battery. A typical battery is illustrated here:
- Students then measure the voltage of the battery with a simple multimeter. They measure the short circuit current with the multimeter in the milliampere range.
- Now compare results from different groups. If you chart the voltage and current of all the lemon batteries in your class, students can notice the following facts:
- The voltages are all about the same, close to 1.0 Volt.
- The currents vary widely, in the range of 0.1-0.3 mA.
- Students should be led in a discussion of why this is true, and the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic properties will be introduced — see further discussion below.
- Let each group have a red LED to attach to their battery. They must observe the polarity of the LED — the longer lead is the positive lead and must be connected to the Cu terminal, otherwise the diode cannot let current through. However, even with the correct connection, one battery is not enough to light a red LED!
- Suggest to students that they try connecting more batteries (in series or parallel?). The reason is that LEDs have a minimum threshold voltage, and that threshold is above 1 volt. Now you will have to darken the room, because even with two lemon batteries in series, the LED light is very dim. However, your students will be delighted to turn their LED on and off by interrupting the circuit.
- As each group gets lights their red LED, give them a white LED to try. Actually, one of my students grabbed a white LED just out of curiosity. The result was very mysterious: He discovered it took three lemons in series to light a white LED, and the white LED was visible across the room without the room lights being dimmed — much brighter than the red LEDs!
When different batteries using the same materials are compared, the students find that they always see pretty much the same voltage, whereas the current differs widely between batteries. Furthermore, students connect cells to each other in different ways in order to light an LED. Two or more are required to light a red LED; three or more to light a white LED. Furthermore, even though the power input is similar, the white LED is much brighter.
- Extrinsic and Intrinsic Properties – Battery Current and Voltage
The voltage is an intrinsic property of the battery, depending only on the two metals. The current depends on the area of the electrodes, their separation, and the conductivity and dimensions of the acidic material in between the two electrodes. Current is therefore an extrinsic property — it depends on the size or amount of things.
- Why was the voltage of the lemon battery about 1.0 V?
Students who have studied chemistry will be familiar with the electromotive series, as follows:This series shows that for any two metals, the one that is lower on the chart will ionize more readily than the metal that is higher, and therefore give up an electron to form the negative terminal of a battery made with those two metals. The ionization energy difference translates into a voltage difference when the two metals make a battery. The voltages in the table show that the potential difference between zinc and copper electrodes should be about .344 – (-.762) = 1.106 V.
- What is the voltage of alkaline batteries, and what is the difference between AA, AAA, C and D alkaline batteries?
Regular alkaline batteries are basically zinc and carbon batteries, and have an intrinsic voltage of 1.5 V. The different sizes demonstrate the extrinsic property — that the charge storage of the larger batteries is greater.
- What are lithium batteries used for and why?
Lithium is even lower on the electromotive series than Potassium. You can see that these very reactive alkali metals will make batteries with voltages above 3 V. Higher voltage is very useful for powering some electronic devices. Light weight also favors lithium batteries.
- Why is the LED voltage threshold higher for white LEDs, and why are they brighter?
Going from red to blue to ultraviolet LED light requires a higher voltage because the blue photons are more energetic than red,
and are produced when the electrons drop through a bigger bandgap semiconductor. White LEDs need to have a blue component. Notice that white LEDs are used for illumination. That means manufacturers have optimized their efficiency. They give a brighter light.
Student Worksheet Downloadable Word Doc
We used the following word document as a lab procedure in the PHY112 class. However, it could be used in PHY101 as well.
The worksheet instructs students how to make their lemon battery. Then it tells them to measure voltage and current for their own lemon, and also tabulate and compare the results of other groups. Finally, it asks the following questions:
- What factors affect an extrinsic property of a system, and what factors affect an intrinsic property?
- Why do some batteries have higher voltages than others?
- What are some basic differences between an LED and an ordinary resistance?
- Why is a white LED brighter than a red LED?