The Formation of Solutions


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Two figures are shown. The first contains two spherical containers joined by a closed stopcock. The container to the left is labeled H e. It holds about thirty evenly dispersed, small, light blue spheres. The container on the right is labeled A r and contains about thirty slightly larger blue-green spheres. The second, similar figure has an open stopcock between the two spherical containers. The light blue and green spheres are evenly dispersed and present in both containers.
Figure 1. Samples of helium and argon spontaneously mix to give a solution. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The formation of a solution is an example of a spontaneous process, a process that occurs under specified conditions without the requirement of energy from some external source. Sometimes a mixture is stirred to speed up the dissolution process, but this is not necessary; a homogeneous solution will form eventually.

  1. a decrease in the internal energy of the system (an exothermic change)
  2. an increased dispersal of matter in the system (which indicates an increase in the entropy of the system)

In the process of dissolution, an internal energy change often, but not always, occurs as heat is absorbed or evolved. An increase in matter dispersal always results when a solution forms from the uniform distribution of solute molecules throughout a solvent.

When the strengths of the intermolecular forces of attraction between solute and solvent species in a solution are no different than those present in the separated components, the solution is formed with no accompanying energy change. Such a solution is called an ideal solution. A mixture of ideal gases (or gases such as helium and argon, which closely approach ideal behavior) is an example of an ideal solution, since the entities comprising these gases experience no significant intermolecular attractions.

When containers of helium and argon are connected, the gases spontaneously mix due to diffusion and form a solution (Figure 1). The formation of this solution clearly involves an increase in matter dispersal, since the helium and argon atoms occupy a volume twice as large as that which each occupied before mixing.

Ideal solutions may also form when structurally similar liquids are mixed. For example, mixtures of the alcohols methanol (CH3OH) and ethanol (C2H5OH) form ideal solutions, as do mixtures of the hydrocarbons pentane, C5H12, and hexane, C6H14. Placing methanol and ethanol, or pentane and hexane, in the bulbs shown in Figure 1 will result in the same diffusion and subsequent mixing of these liquids as is observed for the He and Ar gases (although at a much slower rate), yielding solutions with no significant change in energy. Unlike a mixture of gases, however, the components of these liquid-liquid solutions do, indeed, experience intermolecular attractive forces. But since the molecules of the two substances being mixed are structurally very similar, the intermolecular attractive forces between like and unlike molecules are essentially the same, and the dissolution process, therefore, does not entail any appreciable increase or decrease in energy. These examples illustrate how increased matter dispersal alone can provide the driving force required to cause the spontaneous formation of a solution. In some cases, however, the relative magnitudes of intermolecular forces of attraction between solute and solvent species may prevent dissolution.

Three types of intermolecular attractive forces are relevant to the dissolution process: solute-solute, solvent-solvent, and solute-solvent. As illustrated in Figure 2, the formation of a solution may be viewed as a stepwise process in which energy is consumed to overcome solute-solute and solvent-solvent attractions (endothermic processes) and released when solute-solvent attractions are established (an exothermic process referred to as solvation). The relative magnitudes of the energy changes associated with these stepwise processes determine whether the dissolution process overall will release or absorb energy. In some cases, solutions do not form because the energy required to separate solute and solvent species is so much greater than the energy released by solvation.

The top, central region of the figure shows solute particles as seven blue spheres and solvent particles as 16 red spheres in separate, labeled boxes. The particles in these boxes are touching. An arrow labeled “Step 1” points left of the solute box, and shows the blue spheres no longer touching in another box labeled “expanded solute.” An arrow labeled “Step 2” points right from the solvent box and shows the red spheres no longer touching in another box labeled “expanded solvent.” Arrows proceed from the bottom of the expanded solute and expanded solvent boxes and join at the bottom of the figure where a step 3 label is shown. The joined arrows point to a box just above in which the red and blue spheres are mixed together and touching. The solute and solvent boxes are joined by another arrow labeled “direct formation of solution” which points downward at the center of the figure. This arrow also points to the box containing mixed red and blue spheres near the bottom of the figure.
Figure 2. This schematic representation of dissolution shows a stepwise process involving the endothermic separation of solute and solvent species (Steps 1 and 2) and exothermic solvation (Step 3). Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Consider the example of an ionic compound dissolving in water. Formation of the solution requires the electrostatic forces between the cations and anions of the compound (solute–solute) be overcome completely as attractive forces are established between these ions and water molecules (solute–solvent). Hydrogen bonding between a relatively small fraction of the water molecules must also be overcome to accommodate any dissolved solute. If the solute’s electrostatic forces are significantly greater than the solvation forces, the dissolution process is significantly endothermic and the compound may not dissolve to an appreciable extent. Calcium carbonate, the major component of coral reefs, is one example of such an “insoluble” ionic compound. On the other hand, if the solvation forces are much stronger than the compound’s electrostatic forces, the dissolution is significantly exothermic and the compound may be highly soluble. A common example of this type of ionic compound is sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt.

Spontaneous solution formation is favored, but not guaranteed, by exothermic dissolution processes. While many soluble compounds do, indeed, dissolve with the release of heat, some dissolve endothermically. Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is one such example and is used to make instant cold packs for treating injuries like the one pictured in Figure 3. A thin-walled plastic bag of water is sealed inside a larger bag with solid NH4NO3. When the smaller bag is broken, a solution of NH4NO3 forms, absorbing heat from the surroundings (the injured area to which the pack is applied) and providing a cold compress that decreases swelling. Endothermic dissolutions such as this one require a greater energy input to separate the solute species than is recovered when the solutes are solvated, but they are spontaneous nonetheless due to the increase in disorder that accompanies formation of the solution.

This figure shows a single use instant cold pack with labels indicating an inner bag of water surrounded by white particulate ammonium nitrate.
Figure 3. An instant cold pack gets cold when certain salts, such as ammonium nitrate, dissolve in water—an endothermic process. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e


Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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