Osmosis and Osmotic Pressure of Solutions

A number of natural and synthetic materials exhibit selective permeation, meaning that only molecules or ions of a certain size, shape, polarity, charge, and so forth, are capable of passing through (permeating) the material. Biological cell membranes provide elegant examples of selective permeation in nature, while dialysis tubing used to remove metabolic wastes from blood is a more simplistic technological example. Regardless of how they may be fabricated, these materials are generally referred to as semipermeable membranes.

Consider the apparatus illustrated in Figure 1, in which samples of pure solvent and a solution are separated by a membrane that only solvent molecules may permeate. Solvent molecules will diffuse across the membrane in both directions. Since the concentration of solvent is greater in the pure solvent than the solution, these molecules will diffuse from the solvent side of the membrane to the solution side at a faster rate than they will in the reverse direction. The result is a net transfer of solvent molecules from the pure solvent to the solution.  Transfer of solvent molecules through a semipermeable membrane is a process known as osmosis.

The figure shows two U shaped tubes with a semi permeable membrane placed at the base of the U. In figure a, pure solvent is present and indicated by small yellow spheres to the left of the membrane. To the right, a solution exists with larger blue spheres intermingled with some small yellow spheres. At the membrane, arrows pointing from three small yellow spheres on both sides of the membrane cross over the membrane. An arrow drawn from one of the large blue spheres does not cross the membrane, but rather is reflected back from the surface of the membrane. The levels of liquid in both sides of the U shaped tube are equal. In figure b, arrows again point from small yellow spheres across the semipermeable membrane from both sides. This diagram shows the level of liquid in the left, pure solvent, side to be significantly lower than the liquid level on the right. Dashed lines are drawn from these two liquid levels into the middle of the U-shaped tube and between them is the term osmotic pressure.
Osmosis results in the transfer of solvent molecules from a sample of low (or zero) solute concentration to a sample of higher solute concentration.

When osmosis is carried out in an apparatus like that shown in Figure 1, the volume of the solution increases as it becomes diluted by the accumulation of solvent. This causes the level of the solution to rise, increasing its hydrostatic pressure (due to the weight of the column of solution in the tube) and resulting in a faster transfer of solvent molecules back to the pure solvent side. When the pressure reaches a value that yields a reverse solvent transfer rate equal to the osmosis rate, bulk transfer of solvent ceases. This pressure is called the osmotic pressure (Π) of the solution. The osmotic pressure of a dilute solution is related to its solute molarity, M, and absolute temperature, T, according to the equation


where R is the universal gas constant.

If a solution is placed in an apparatus like the one shown in Figure 2, applying pressure greater than the osmotic pressure of the solution reverses the osmosis and pushes solvent molecules from the solution into the pure solvent. This technique of reverse osmosis is used for large-scale desalination of seawater and on smaller scales to produce high-purity tap water for drinking.

The figure shows a U shaped tube with a semi permeable membrane placed at the base of the U. Pure solvent is present and indicated by small yellow spheres to the left of the membrane. To the right, a solution exists with larger blue spheres intermingled with some small yellow spheres. At the membrane, arrows point from four small yellow spheres to the left of the membrane. On the right side of the U, there is a disk that is the same width of the tube and appears to block it. The disk is at the same level as the solution. An arrow points down from the top of the tube to the disk and is labeled, “Pressure greater than Π subscript solution.”
Applying a pressure greater than the osmotic pressure of a solution will reverse osmosis. Solvent molecules from the solution are pushed into the pure solvent.

In the process of osmosis,  water moves through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution to a more concentrated solution. Osmotic pressure is the amount of pressure that must be applied to the more concentrated solution to cause osmosis to stop. If greater pressure is applied, the water will go from the more concentrated solution to a less concentrated (more pure) solution. This is called reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis (RO) is used to purify water in many applications, from desalination plants in coastal cities, to water-purifying machines in grocery stores (Figure 3), and smaller reverse-osmosis household units. With a hand-operated pump, small RO units can be used in third-world countries, disaster areas, and in lifeboats. Our military forces have a variety of generator-operated RO units that can be transported in vehicles to remote locations.

This figure shows two photos of reverse osmosis systems. The first is a small system that appears easily portable. The second is larger and situated outdoors.
Reverse osmosis systems for purifying drinking water are shown here on (a) small and (b) large scales. (credit a: modification of work by Jerry Kirkhart; credit b: modification of work by Willard J. Lathrop)

Examples of osmosis are evident in many biological systems because cells are surrounded by semipermeable membranes. Carrots and celery that have become limp because they have lost water can be made crisp again by placing them in water. Water moves into the carrot or celery cells by osmosis. A cucumber placed in a concentrated salt solution loses water by osmosis and absorbs some salt to become a pickle. Osmosis can also affect animal cells. Solute concentrations are particularly important when solutions are injected into the body. Solutes in body cell fluids and blood serum give these solutions an osmotic pressure of approximately 7.7 atm. Solutions injected into the body must have the same osmotic pressure as blood serum; that is, they should be isotonic with blood serum. If a less concentrated solution, a hypotonic solution, is injected in sufficient quantity to dilute the blood serum, water from the diluted serum passes into the blood cells by osmosis, causing the cells to expand and rupture. This process is called hemolysis. When a more concentrated solution, a hypertonic solution, is injected, the cells lose water to the more concentrated solution, shrivel, and possibly die in a process called crenation. These effects are illustrated in Figure 4.

This figure shows three scenarios relating to red blood cell membranes. In a, H subscript 2 O has two arrows drawn from it pointing into a red disk. Beneath it in a circle are eleven similar disks with a bulging appearance, one of which appears to have burst with blue liquid erupting from it. In b, the image is similar except that rather than having two arrows pointing into the red disk, one points in and a second points out toward the H subscript 2 O. In the circle beneath, twelve of the red disks are present. In c, both arrows are drawn from a red shriveled disk toward the H subscript 2 O. In the circle below, twelve shriveled disks are shown.
Red blood cell membranes are water permeable and will (a) swell and possibly rupture in a hypotonic solution; (b) maintain normal volume and shape in an isotonic solution; and (c) shrivel and possibly die in a hypertonic solution. (credit a/b/c: modifications of work by “LadyofHats”/Wikimedia commons)


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