30 Solutions, Suspensions, and Colloids

Adapted from OpenStax:


Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the composition and properties of colloidal dispersions
  • List and explain several technological applications of colloids

As a child, you may have made suspensions such as mixtures of mud and water, flour and water, or a suspension of solid pigments in water, known as tempera paint. These suspensions are heterogeneous mixtures composed of relatively large particles that are visible (or that can be seen with a magnifying glass). They are cloudy, and the suspended particles settle out after mixing. On the other hand, when we make a solution, we prepare a homogeneous mixture in which no settling occurs and in which the dissolved species are molecules or ions. Solutions exhibit completely different behavior from suspensions. A solution may be colored, but it is transparent, the molecules or ions are invisible, and they do not settle out on standing. A group of mixtures called colloids (or colloidal dispersions) exhibit properties intermediate between those of suspensions and solutions (Figure 11.30). The particles in a colloid are larger than most simple molecules; however, colloidal particles are small enough that they do not settle out upon standing.

This figure contains three photos and correponding particle diagrams. In a, a photo of an aquarium containing fish is shown. The particle diagram beneath it shows 90 tiny red spheres. In b, a photo is shown of milk being poured into a cup. The corresponding particle diagram shows about 25 medium sized red spheres.In c, a photo is shown of two pairs of sandal clad feet in mud. The particle diagram below shows 10 fairly large red spheres.
Figure 11.30 (a) A solution is a homogeneous mixture that appears clear, such as the saltwater in this aquarium. (b) In a colloid, such as milk, the particles are much larger but remain dispersed and do not settle. (c) A suspension, such as mud, is a heterogeneous mixture of suspended particles that appears cloudy and in which the particles can settle. (credit a photo: modification of work by Adam Wimsatt; credit b photo: modification of work by Melissa Wiese; credit c photo: modification of work by Peter Burgess)

The particles in a colloid are large enough to scatter light, a phenomenon called the Tyndall effect. This can make colloidal mixtures appear cloudy or opaque, such as the searchlight beams shown in Figure 11.31. Clouds are colloidal mixtures. They are composed of water droplets that are much larger than molecules, but that are small enough that they do not settle out.

This is a photo of searchlight beams in the night sky of a city scene.
Figure 11.31 The paths of searchlight beams are made visible when light is scattered by colloidal-size particles in the air (fog, smoke, etc.). (credit: “Bahman”/Wikimedia Commons)

The term “colloid”—from the Greek words kolla, meaning “glue,” and eidos, meaning “like”—was first used in 1861 by Thomas Graham to classify mixtures such as starch in water and gelatin. Many colloidal particles are aggregates of hundreds or thousands of molecules, but others (such as proteins and polymer molecules) consist of a single extremely large molecule. The protein and synthetic polymer molecules that form colloids may have molecular masses ranging from a few thousand to many million atomic mass units.

Analogous to the identification of solution components as “solute” and “solvent,” the components of a colloid are likewise classified according to their relative amounts. The particulate component typically present in a relatively minor amount is called the dispersed phase and the substance or solution throughout which the particulate is dispersed is called the dispersion medium. Colloids may involve virtually any combination of physical states (gas in liquid, liquid in solid, solid in gas, etc.), as illustrated by the examples of colloidal systems given in Table 11.4.

Examples of Colloidal Systems
Dispersed Phase Dispersion Medium Common Examples Name
solid gas smoke, dust
solid liquid starch in water, some inks, paints, milk of magnesia sol
solid solid some colored gems, some alloys
liquid gas clouds, fogs, mists, sprays aerosol
liquid liquid milk, mayonnaise, butter emulsion
liquid solid jellies, gels, pearl, opal (H2O in SiO2) gel
gas liquid foams, whipped cream, beaten egg whites foam
gas solid pumice, floating soaps
Table 11.4


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