In order for a voltaic cell to function, its electrodes must be placed in a conductive electrolyte solution, most often solutions consisting of their metal ions. While I understand the use of the metal ions (allows for the plating to occur on the cathode), why must the electrolyte be conductive? Thanks!

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    $\begingroup$ If it's not conductive, the cell doesn't work - the electrons need a complete circuit to be present in the system in order for current to flow. $\endgroup$ – Todd Minehardt Jan 6 '17 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ The current flow in the solution is not done by electrons per sey. Within the solution ions conduct the current. Cations would flow in one direction and anions in the other. $\endgroup$ – MaxW Jan 6 '17 at 7:12

The electrolyte must be conductive to ions, not electrons. In fact, if there's an easy path for electrons to move between the two electrodes, the cell will immediately self-discharge. The exact reason for needing ionic-conductivity kind of depends on the cell. For example, in lithium-ion batteries, lithium-ions are generated at the anode and consumed at the cathode (or vice-versa). If ions cannot move freely between the two (through the electrolyte), then you will quickly build up an ion-rich region at one electrode and an ion-deficient region at the other at which point the reaction will stop.

It's not even a requirement that the electrolyte be liquid, as long as it conducts ions. Eg. the sodium-sulfur battery uses a form of solid alumina that conducts sodium ions.

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