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9.11: Osmosis and Osmotic Pressure

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    Learning Objectives
    • Describe osmosis and how it relates to osmotic pressure.

    Osmotic Pressure

    The last colligative property of solutions we will consider is a very important one for biological systems. It involves osmosis, the process by which solvent molecules can pass through certain membranes but solute particles cannot. When two solutions of different concentration are present on either side of these membranes (called semipermeable membranes), there is a tendency for solvent molecules to move from the more dilute solution to the more concentrated solution until the concentrations of the two solutions are equal. This tendency is called osmotic pressure. External pressure can be exerted on a solution to counter the flow of solvent; the pressure required to halt the osmosis of a solvent is equal to the osmotic pressure of the solution.

    Osmolarity (osmol) is a way of reporting the total number of particles in a solution to determine osmotic pressure. It is defined as the molarity of a solute times the number of particles a formula unit of the solute makes when it dissolves (represented by \(i\)):

    \[osmol = M \times i\label{Eq1} \]

    If more than one solute is present in a solution, the individual osmolarities are additive to get the total osmolarity of the solution. Solutions that have the same osmolarity have the same osmotic pressure. If solutions of differing osmolarities are present on opposite sides of a semipermeable membrane, solvent will transfer from the lower-osmolarity solution to the higher-osmolarity solution. Counterpressure exerted on the high-osmolarity solution will reduce or halt the solvent transfer. An even higher pressure can be exerted to force solvent from the high-osmolarity solution to the low-osmolarity solution, a process called reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is used to make potable water from saltwater where sources of fresh water are scarce.

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    A 0.50 M NaCl aqueous solution and a 0.30 M Ca(NO3)2 aqueous solution are placed on opposite sides of a semipermeable membrane. Determine the osmolarity of each solution and predict the direction of solvent flow.


    The solvent will flow into the solution of higher osmolarity. The NaCl solute separates into two ions—Na+ and Cl—when it dissolves, so its osmolarity is as follows:

    osmol (NaCl) = 0.50 M × 2 = 1.0 osmol

    The Ca(NO3)2 solute separates into three ions—one Ca2+ and two NO3—when it dissolves, so its osmolarity is as follows:

    osmol [Ca(NO3)2] = 0.30 M × 3 = 0.90 osmol

    The osmolarity of the Ca(NO3)2 solution is lower than that of the NaCl solution, so water will transfer through the membrane from the Ca(NO3)2 solution to the NaCl solution.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    A 1.5 M C6H12O6 aqueous solution and a 0.40 M Al(NO3)3 aqueous solution are placed on opposite sides of a semipermeable membrane. Determine the osmolarity of each solution and predict the direction of solvent flow.


    osmol C6H12O6 = 1.5; osmol Al(NO3)3 = 1.6

    The solvent flows from C6H12O6 solution (lower osmolarity) to \(\ce{Al(NO3)3}\) solution (higher osmolarity).

    Cell walls are semipermeable membranes, so the osmotic pressures of the body’s fluids have important biological consequences. If solutions of different osmolarity exist on either side of the cells, solvent (water) may pass into or out of the cells, sometimes with disastrous results. Consider what happens if red blood cells are placed in a hypotonic solution, meaning a solution of lower osmolarity than the liquid inside the cells. The cells swell up as water enters them, disrupting cellular activity and eventually causing the cells to burst. This process is called hemolysis. If red blood cells are placed in a hypertonic solution, meaning one having a higher osmolarity than exists inside the cells, water leaves the cells to dilute the external solution, and the red blood cells shrivel and die. This process is called crenation. Only if red blood cells are placed in isotonic solutions that have the same osmolarity as exists inside the cells are they unaffected by negative effects of osmotic pressure. Glucose solutions of about 0.31 M, or sodium chloride solutions of about 0.16 M, are isotonic with blood plasma.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Red blood cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions.

    The concentration of an isotonic sodium chloride (NaCl) solution is only half that of an isotonic glucose (C6H12O6) solution because NaCl produces two ions when a formula unit dissolves, while molecular C6H12O6 produces only one particle when a formula unit dissolves. The osmolarities are therefore the same even though the concentrations of the two solutions are different.

    Osmotic pressure explains why you should not drink seawater if you are abandoned in a life raft in the middle of the ocean. Its osmolarity is about three times higher than most bodily fluids. You would actually become thirstier as water from your cells was drawn out to dilute the salty ocean water you ingested. Our bodies do a better job coping with hypotonic solutions than with hypertonic ones. The excess water is collected by our kidneys and excreted.

    Osmotic pressure effects are used in the food industry to make pickles from cucumbers and other vegetables and in brining meat to make corned beef. It is also a factor in the mechanism of getting water from the roots to the tops of trees!

    9.11: Osmosis and Osmotic Pressure is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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