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6.1: What Is a Solution?

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  • The first type of complex system that we will consider is a solution. You almost certainly already have some thoughts about what a solution is and you might want to take a moment to think about what these are. This will help you recognize your implicit assumptions if they “get in the way” of understanding what a solution is scientifically. The major difference between a solution and the systems we have previously discussed is that solutions have more than one chemical substance in them. This raises the question: what exactly is a solution and what does it mean to dissolve? You are probably thinking of examples like sugar or salt dissolved in water or soda. What about milk? Is it a solution? Do solutions have to be liquid or can they also include gases and solids? What is the difference between a solution and a mixture?

    It turns out that we can make solutions from a wide range of materials. Although it is common to think of solutions in terms of a solid dissolved into a liquid, this is not the only type of solution. Other examples of solutions include: gas in liquid (where molecular oxygen, or O2, dissolves in water – important for fish); solid in solid (the alloy brass is a solution of copper and zinc); gas in solid (hydrogen can be dissolved in the metal palladium); and liquid in liquid (beer is a solution of ethanol and water and a few other things).

    Let us take a closer look at what we mean by a solution, starting with a two-component system. Typically, one of the components is present in a smaller amount than the other. We call the major component the solvent and the minor component(s) the solute(s). The most familiar solutions are aqueous solutions, in which water is the solvent. For example, in a solution of the sugar glucose in water, glucose molecules are the solute and water molecules are the solvent. In beer, which is typically 2–4% ethanol, ethanol is the primary solute and water is the solvent. Once they are thoroughly mixed, solutions have the same composition throughout—they are homogeneous at the macroscopic scale, even though at the molecular level we still find different types of molecules or ions. This is an important point: Once mixed, they remain mixed! If you take a sample from the top of a solution, it has the same composition as a sample from elsewhere in the solution. Solutions, when viewed at the molecular level, have the solute particles evenly (and randomly) dispersed in the solute. Also, because the solute and solvent are in contact with each other, there must be some kind of molecular interaction between the two types of molecules. This is not true for simple mixtures. For example, we tend to describe air as a mixture of gases (N2, O2, H2O, etc.), rather than a solution because the gas molecules do not interact aside from the occasional collision with each other.

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