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This figure contains three photos and corresponding 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 1. (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)

Colloids (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

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, a solution is 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. Another class of mixtures called colloids (or colloidal dispersions) exhibit properties intermediate between those of suspensions and solutions (Figure 1). 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.

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 2. 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 2. 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 1.

Examples of Colloidal Systems

Dispersed PhaseDispersion MediumCommon ExamplesName
solidgassmoke, dust
solidliquidstarch in water, some inks, paints, milk of magnesiasol
solidsolidsome colored gems, some alloys
liquidgasclouds, fogs, mists, spraysaerosol
liquidliquidmilk, mayonnaise, butteremulsion
liquidsolidjellies, gels, pearl, opal (H2O in SiO2)gel
gasliquidfoams, whipped cream, beaten egg whitesfoam
gassolidpumice, floating soaps
Table 1. 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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