electrode, terminal through which electric current passes between metallic and nonmetallic parts of an electric circuit. In most familiar circuits current is carried by metallic conductors, but in some circuits the current passes for some distance through a nonmetallic conductor. For example, in electrolysis current passes through a liquid electrolyte; in a fluorescent lamp current passes through a gas. An electrode is usually in the form of a wire, rod, or plate. It may be made of a metal, e.g., copper, lead, platinum, silver, or zinc, or of a nonmetal, commonly carbon. The electrode through which current passes from the metallic to the nonmetallic conductor is called the anode, and that through which current passes from the nonmetallic to the metallic conductor, the cathode. (Electron flow is in a direction opposite that of conventionally defined current.) In most familiar electric devices, current flows from the terminal at higher electric potential (the positive electrode) to the terminal at lower electric potential (the negative electrode); therefore, the anode is usually the positive electrode and the cathode the negative electrode. In some electric devices, e.g., an electric battery, nonelectric energy is converted to electric energy, causing current to flow within the device from the negative electrode to the positive electrode, so that the anode is the negative electrode and the cathode is the positive electrode.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.