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Electrolytes

Electrolytes

Were you ever told not to swim during a lightning storm because you would get electrocuted? Well, it turns out that water, in its pure form, is not electrically conductive. But, when electrolytes coming from your sweat or from the environment are dissolved in the water, they make it highly electrically conductive, making it dangerous to go swimming during a lightning storm!

Electrolytes: definition

Let's start by looking at the definition of electrolytes. These electrolyte solutions are able to carry an electric current.

  • Conductivity is referred to as the ability of electric current to flow through a material.

An electrolyte is a compound that dissociates into ions when dissolved in water. Electrolytes conduct electric current in aqueous solutions or in a molten state.

For example, when sulfuric acid dissolves in water, it dissociates into hydrogen ions (H+) and sulfate anions (SO42-).

$$ \text{H}_{2}\text{SO}_{4}\text{(aq)} \longrightarrow \text{2 H}^{+}\text{ (aq) + SO}_{4}^{2-}\text{(aq)} $$

Usually, electrical conductivity testers are used to test a solution's conductivity (figure 1). This test involves adding the aqueous solution to a beaker containing two electrical plates with opposite charges connected to a power source and a light bulb. Basically, when the charge runs to the plates, the positive ions are attracted to the negative plate, while the negative ions are attracted to the positive plate.

Types of Electrolytes

There are three types of electrolytes you should remember, and they are based on the degree to which they dissociate in water.

Strong Electrolytes

First up are strong electrolytes. In the category of strong electrolytes, we have soluble ionic compounds, strong acids, and strong bases.

Strong electrolytes are those that, when dissolved in water, dissociate completely into ions.

Ionic compounds are usually composed of a metal and a non-metal or a metal and a polyatomic ion. A common example of a soluble ionic compound is sodium chloride (NaCl). However, not all ionic compounds are soluble in water (H2O). Table 1 shows the solubility rules for ionic compounds in water.

Compounds containing
Soluble or Insoluble in H2O
Exceptions
NO3-
soluble
none
CH3COO- (acetate)
soluble
none
Cl-, Br- and I-
soluble
Ag+, Hg22+ and Pb2+
SO42-
soluble
Sr2+, Ba2+, Hg22+ and Pb2+
S2-
insoluble
NH4+, Li+, Na+, K+, Rb+, Cs+, Ca2+, Sr2+, and Ba2+
CO32-
insoluble
NH4+, Li+, Na+, K+, Rb+, and Cs+
PO43-
insoluble
NH4+, Li+, Na+, K+, Rb+, and Cs+
OH-
insoluble
NH4+, Li+, Na+, K+, Rb+, Cs+, Ca2+, Sr2+, and Ba2+

Let's look at an example.

Is the ionic compound potassium nitrate (KNO3) soluble or insoluble in water?

When KNO3 is allowed to dissociate in water, it forms K+ and NO3- ions. The solubility rules states that all ionic compounds containing NO3- are soluble in water. Therefore, KNO3 is soluble in water.

Is the ionic compound barium sulfate (BaSO4) soluble or insoluble in water?

According to the solubility rules for ionic compounds in water, compounds containing SO42- tend to be soluble in water unless it has one of the metals in the "exceptions" column. Notice that Ba2+ is indeed in the "exceptions" column, meaning that BaSO4 is actually insoluble in water.

Strong acids are acids that 100% dissociate in water to produce positive hydrogen ions (H+) and negative chlorine ions (Cl-). The seven strong acids are HCl, HBr, HI, HClO4, HClO3, H2SO4, and HNO3.

The figure below shows the dissociation of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in water.

Similar to strong acids, strong bases also completely dissociate in water. But, instead of forming H+ ions, they form hydroxide ions (OH-) in the solution. For example, aqueous sodium hydroxide (NaOH) completely dissociates in water into aqueous sodium ions (Na+) and hydroxide (OH-) ions.

$$ \text{NaOH (aq) } \longrightarrow \text{ Na}^{+}\text{(aq) + OH}^{-}\text{(aq)} $$

The strong bases include group 1 metal hydroxides (LiOH, NaOH, KOH, RbOH, CsOH) and group 2 metal hydroxides (Ba(OH)2, Sr(OH)2, and Ca(OH)2).

Weak Electrolytes

Next, we have weak electrolytes, and these are either weak acids or weak bases.

Weak electrolytes are those that do not completely dissociate in water (H2O). In other words, they partially dissociate in water and can only conduct a weak current in aqueous solutions.

When dealing with weak electrolytes, we use half-arrows pointing in opposite directions, indicating that the reaction moves significantly in both directions.

$$ \text{CH}_{3}\text{COOH }\text{(aq)} \rightleftharpoons \text{CH}_{3}\text{COO}^{-}\text{ (aq) + H}^{+}\text{(aq)} $$

Table 2 shows a list of some common weak acids and weak bases.

Weak AcidsWeak Bases
Hydrogen fluoride (HF)Ammonia (NH3)
Hydrogen cyanide (HCN)Methylamine (CH3NH2)
Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)Diazane (NH2NH2)
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S)Hydroxylamine (NH2OH)
Fulminic acid (CHNO)Ammonium hydroxide (NH4OH)
Formic acid (HCOOH)Aluminum hydroxide (Al(OH3))
Hypochlorous acid (HOCl)Iron (II) hydroxide (Fe(OH)2)
Acetic acid (CH3CO2H)Aniline (C6H5NH2).
Boric acid (B(OH)3)Pyridine (C5H5N)

Basically, if the acid or base you are dealing with is not a part of the 7 strong acids and 8 strong bases we learned above, then it will be a weak acid or base!

Non-electrolytes

Non-electrolytes are actually molecular compounds. Molecular compounds are compounds made of non-metals that are not considered acids or bases.

Non-electrolytes are those that do not dissociate into ions but are still able to dissolve in water. Therefore, they do not make the aqueous solution electrically conductive.

Common examples of non-electrolytes include alcohol methanol (CH3OH) and glucose sugar (C6H12O6). Glucose is highly soluble in water, but even though it dissolves into water, it does not dissociate into ions. In other words, a non-electrolyte solution does not conduct electricity.

Electrolytes: properties

The properties of electrolytes depend on the type of electrolyte. Strong electrolytes completely dissociate in water, forming an aqueous solution with a high conductivity.

Weak electrolytes partially dissociate into its ions in water, so its aqueous solution has a low conductivity.

Non-electrolytes, on the other hand, are soluble in water, but they do not dissociate into ions. Therefore, an aqueous solution with a non-electrolyte does not conduct electric current.

Electrolytes: functions

Now that we know the different types of electrolytes that exist, let's dive into the functions of electrolytes. In chemistry, the most common use of electrolytes is probably in the process of electrolysis.

Electrolysis involves using electricity to split up compounds into its ions.

The basic set-up for the electrolysis of sodium chloride (NaCl) can be seen in the figure below. Here, notice that we need a power source (for example, a battery), and two electrodes. These electrodes are then placed in the electrolyte (substance containing positive and negative ions, which is NaCl in this case).

When electricity is applied to the electrolyte, the positive ions from the electrolyte (Na+) are attracted to the negative electrode, whereas the negative ions (Cl-) are attracted to the positive electrode.

For a more in-depth explanation on electrolysis and its uses, check out "Electrolysis"!

Electrolytes are also very important in physiology. Salts containing sodium, potassium, and calcium ions are essential for the conduction of nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and osmotic regulation! When an electrolyte imbalance occurs, these very high or very low levels of electrolyte disrupt the cell function, leading to mild or life-threatening complications.

For example, low levels of sodium (Na+) ions might cause headaches, confusion, disrupted attention, and even cerebral edema (brain swelling), whereas high levels of sodium ions can cause agitation, and tachycardia (fast heart beat).

Chemical Equation of Electrolytes

Lastly, let's take a look at a chemical equation involving electrolytes. Let's start with calcium chloride (CaCl2). The first thing we need to do is figure out whether CaCl2 is soluble in H2O. So, if you scroll up to the table containing the solubility rules for ionic compounds, you will notice that CaCl2 is soluble in water, so it will dissolve in it.

Now, is it going to be a strong, weak or a non-electrolyte? Well, since CaCl2 is an ionic compound, then it will be a strong electrolyte, and therefore, readily dissociate in H2O into its ion equivalents.

$$ \text{CaCl}_{2}\text{(aq) } \text{ = Ca}^{2+}\text{(aq) } \text{ + Cl}^{-}\text{(aq) } $$

Now, I hope that you feel more confident in your understanding of electrolytes and how to determine whether a compound is a strong, weak or non-electrolyte!

Electrolytes - Key takeaways

  • An electrolyte is a compound that dissociates into ions when dissolved in water. Electrolytes conduct electric current in aqueous solutions or in a molten state.
  • To test a solution for conductivity, an electrical conductivity tester is mostly used.
  • Strong electrolytescompletely dissociate in water, forming an aqueous solution with a high conductivity.
  • Weak electrolytespartially dissociate into its ions in water, so its aqueous solution has a low conductivity.
  • Non-electrolytes, on the other hand, are soluble in water, but they do not dissociate into ions. Therefore, an aqueous solution with a non-electrolyte does not conduct electric current.


References

  1. Zumdahl, S. S., Zumdahl, S. A., & Decoste, D. J. (2019). Chemistry. Cengage Learning Asia Pte Ltd.
  2. Theodore Lawrence Brown, Eugene, H., Bursten, B. E., Murphy, C. J., Woodward, P. M., Stoltzfus, M. W., & Lufaso, M. W. (2018). Chemistry : the central science (14th ed.). Pearson.
  3. N Saunders, Kat Day, Iain Brand, Claybourne, A., Scott, G., & Smithsonian Books (Publisher. (2020). Supersimple chemistry : the ultimate bite-size study guide. Dk Publishing.

Final Electrolytes Quiz

Question

True or false: Conductivity is referred to as the ability of electric current to flow through a material. 


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

An _____  is a compound that dissociates into ions when dissolved in water.

Show answer

Answer

electrolyte

Show question

Question

when sulfuric acid dissolves in ____ , it dissociates into hydrogen ions (H+) and sulfate anions (SO42-). 

Show answer

Answer

water

Show question

Question

What types of test is usually performed to test solution conductivity? 

Show answer

Answer

Electrical conductivity testers are used to test a solution's conductivity.

Show question

Question

Strong electrolytes can be: 

Show answer

Answer

strong acids

Show question

Question

_______ are those that, when dissolved in water, dissociate completely into ions.

Show answer

Answer

Strong electrolytes 

Show question

Question

Is the ionic compound potassium nitrate (KNO3) soluble or insoluble in water? 

Show answer

Answer

Soluble

Show question

Question

Is the ionic compound barium sulfate (BaSO4) soluble or insoluble in water? 

Show answer

Answer

Insoluble

Show question

Question

What are the strong acids? 

Show answer

Answer

HCl, HBr, HI, HClO4, HClO3, H2SO4, and HNO3. 

Show question

Question

____ bases also completely dissociate in water. But, instead of forming Hions, they form hydroxide ions (OH-) in the solution.

Show answer

Answer

strong

Show question

Question

What are the strong bases?

Show answer

Answer

The strong bases include group 1 metal hydroxides (LiOH, NaOH, KOH, RbOH, CsOH) and group 2 metal hydroxides (Ba(OH)2, Sr(OH)2, and Ca(OH)2).

Show question

Question

Weak electrolytes _____  dissociate in water and can only conduct a weak current in aqueous solutions.  

Show answer

Answer

partially

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Question

______  are those that do not dissociate into ions but are still able to dissolve in water. Therefore, they do not make the aqueous solution electrically conductive.

Show answer

Answer

Non-electrolytes

Show question

Question

Glucose is an example of a _______.

Show answer

Answer

Non-electrolyte

Show question

Question

_____ involves using electricity to split up compounds into its ions. 

Show answer

Answer

Electrolysis  

Show question

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