A cathode is an electrode through which electric current flows out of a polarized electrical device. The direction of electric current is, by convention, opposite to the direction of electron flow. Therefore the electrons flow into the polarized electrical device and out of, for example, the connected electrical circuit. Mnemonic: CCD (Cathode Current Departs).

Cathode polarity is not always negative. Although positively charged cations always move towards the cathode (hence their name) and negatively charged anions move away from it, cathode polarity depends on the device type, and can even vary according to the operating mode. In a device which consumes power, the cathode is negative, and in a device which provides power, the cathode is positive:

  • In a discharging battery or a galvanic cell the cathode is the positive terminal since that is where the current flows out of the device (see drawing). This outward current is carried internally by positive ions moving from the electrolyte to the positive cathode (chemical energy is responsible for this "uphill" motion). It is continued externally by electrons moving inwards, negative charge moving one way constituting positive current flowing the other way. For example, the Daniell galvanic cell's copper electrode is the positive terminal and the cathode.
  • In a recharging battery, or an electrolytic cell, the cathode is the negative terminal, which sends current back to the external generator. For example, reversing the current direction in a Daniell galvanic cell would produce an electrolytic cell, where the copper electrode is the positive terminal and the anode.
  • In a diode, it is the negative terminal at the pointed end of the arrow symbol, where current flows out of the device. Note: electrode naming for diodes is always based on the direction of the forward current (that of the arrow, in which the current flows "most easily"), even for types such as Zener diodes or solar cells where the current of interest is the reverse current.
  • In vacuum tubes (including cathode ray tubes) it is the negative terminal where electrons flow in from the wiring and through the tube's near vacuum, constituting a positive current flowing out of the device.

An electrode through which current flows the other way (into the device) is termed an anode.

Read more about Cathode:  Etymology, Flow of Electrons, Chemistry Cathode, Electronics and Physics Cathode

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