Batteries are devices that convert chemical energy into electrical energy. When two different metals are connected by an electrolyte, a chemical reaction occurs at each metal surface, called electrodes, that either releases or uses electrons. When these electrodes are connected by a wire, electrons will move from one surface to the other, creating an electric current.
Pennies that were made after 1982 have zinc cores that are plated with copper. By sanding off one face of a penny, you create a zinc electrode that can pair with the copper electrode on the face of the next penny. The matboard soaked in salty vinegar water serves as the electrolyte between the two terminals.
Each zinc-matboard-copper stack represents one individual cell. By stacking additional matboards and sanded pennies, you’ve created a battery, which is a series of electrochemical cells. This is also called a voltaic pile, which is named after Alessandro Volta, who created the first battery in 1800 by alternating zinc and copper electrodes with sulfuric acid between them. In Volta’s battery and your penny battery, an oxidation reaction occurs at the zinc electrode that releases electrons and a reduction reaction occurs at the copper electrode that uses them.
With a voltmeter, you can see that each cell can generate over 0.6 volts. The penny battery you created for this Snack has four cells. A stack of three cells should generate enough voltage to light a red LED, which usually require around 1.7 volts.