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9.4.2: Electrolytes and Nonelectrolytes

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    • Anonymous
    • LibreTexts
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    Learning Objectives
    • Define electrolytes and non electrolytes
    • Discuss the idea of water as the "universal solvent".
    • Explain how water molecules attract ionic solids when they dissolve in water.

    When some substances are dissolved in water, they undergo either a physical or a chemical change that yields ions in solution. These substances constitute an important class of compounds called electrolytes. Substances that do not yield ions when dissolved are called nonelectrolytes. If the physical or chemical process that generates the ions is essentially 100% efficient (all of the dissolved compound yields ions), then the substance is known as a strong electrolyte (good conductor). If only a relatively small fraction of the dissolved substance undergoes the ion-producing process, the substance is a weak electrolyte (does not conduct electricity as well).

    Substances may be identified as strong, weak, or nonelectrolytes by measuring the electrical conductance of an aqueous solution containing the substance. To conduct electricity, a substance must contain freely mobile, charged species. Most familiar is the conduction of electricity through metallic wires, in which case the mobile, charged entities are electrons. Solutions may also conduct electricity if they contain dissolved ions, with conductivity increasing as ion concentration increases. Applying a voltage to electrodes immersed in a solution permits assessment of the relative concentration of dissolved ions, either quantitatively, by measuring the electrical current flow, or qualitatively, by observing the brightness of a light bulb included in the circuit (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    This diagram shows three separate beakers. Each has a wire plugged into a wall outlet. In each case, the wire leads from the wall to the beaker and is split resulting in two ends. One end leads to a light bulb and continues on to a rectangle labeled with a plus sign. The other end leads to a rectangle labeled with a minus sign. The rectangles are in a solution. In the first beaker, labeled “Ethanol No Conductivity,” four pairs of linked small green spheres suspended in the solution between the rectangles. In the second beaker, labeled “K C l Strong Conductivity,” six individual green spheres, three labeled plus and three labeled minus are suspended in the solution. Each of the six spheres has an arrow extending from it pointing to the rectangle labeled with the opposite sign. In the third beaker, labeled “Acetic acid solution Weak conductivity,” two pairs of joined green spheres and two individual spheres, one labeled plus and one labeled minus are shown suspended between the two rectangles. The plus labeled sphere has an arrow pointing to the rectangle labeled minus and the minus labeled sphere has an arrow pointing to the rectangle labeled plus.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Solutions of nonelectrolytes, such as ethanol, do not contain dissolved ions and cannot conduct electricity. Solutions of electrolytes contain ions that permit the passage of electricity. The conductivity of an electrolyte solution is related to the strength of the electrolyte.

    Water and other polar molecules are attracted to ions, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). The electrostatic attraction between an ion and a molecule with a dipole is called an ion-dipole attraction. They are similar to the dipole-dipole interactions which were discussed earlier, but often stronger due to the full charge on the ions. These interactions are strong enough to play an important role in the dissolution of ionic compounds in water.

    The diagram shows eight purple spheres labeled K superscript plus and eight green spheres labeled C l superscript minus mixed and touching near the center of the diagram. Outside of this cluster of spheres are seventeen clusters of three spheres, which include one red and two white spheres. A red sphere in one of these clusters is labeled O. A white sphere is labeled H. Two of the green C l superscript minus spheres are surrounded by three of the red and white clusters, with the red spheres closer to the green spheres than the white spheres. One of the K superscript plus purple spheres is surrounded by four of the red and white clusters. The white spheres of these clusters are closest to the purple spheres.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): As potassium chloride (KCl) dissolves in water, the ions are hydrated. The polar water molecules are attracted by the charges on the K+ and Cl ions. Water molecules in front of and behind the ions are not shown.

    When ionic compounds dissolve in water, the ions in the solid separate and disperse uniformly throughout the solution because water molecules surround and solvate the ions, reducing the strong electrostatic forces between them. This process represents a physical change known as dissociation. Under most conditions, ionic compounds will dissociate nearly completely when dissolved, and so they are classified as strong electrolytes.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\): Identifying Ionic Compounds

    Which compound(s) will dissolve in solution to separate into ions?

    1. \(\ce{LiF}\)
    2. \(\ce{P_2F_5}\)
    3. \(\ce{C_2H_5OH}\)


    \(\ce{LiF}\) will separate into ions when dissolved in solution, because it is an ionic compound. \(\ce{P_2F_5}\) and \(\ce{C_2H_5OH}\) are both covalent and will stay as molecules in a solution.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Which compounds will dissolve in solution to separate into ions?

    1. C6H12O11, glucose
    2. CCl4
    3. CaCl2
    4. AgNO3
    c & d

    Contributions & Attributions

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    This page titled 9.4.2: Electrolytes and Nonelectrolytes is shared under a mixed license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.