The Preparation of Colloidal Systems


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This is a photo of searchlight beams in the night sky of a city scene.
Figure 1 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 Preparation of Colloidal Systems (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

Colloids are prepared by producing particles of colloidal dimensions and distributing these particles throughout a dispersion medium. Particles of colloidal size are formed by two methods:

  1. Dispersion methods: breaking down larger particles. For example, paint pigments are produced by dispersing large particles by grinding in special mills.
  2. Condensation methods: growth from smaller units, such as molecules or ions. For example, clouds form when water molecules condense and form very small droplets.

A few solid substances, when brought into contact with water, disperse spontaneously and form colloidal systems. Gelatin, glue, starch, and dehydrated milk powder behave in this manner. The particles are already of colloidal size; the water simply disperses them. Powdered milk particles of colloidal size are produced by dehydrating milk spray. Some atomizers produce colloidal dispersions of a liquid in air.

An emulsion may be prepared by shaking together or blending two immiscible liquids. This breaks one liquid into droplets of colloidal size, which then disperse throughout the other liquid. Oil spills in the ocean may be difficult to clean up, partly because wave action can cause the oil and water to form an emulsion. In many emulsions, however, the dispersed phase tends to coalesce, form large drops, and separate. Therefore, emulsions are usually stabilized by an emulsifying agent, a substance that inhibits the coalescence of the dispersed liquid. For example, a little soap will stabilize an emulsion of kerosene in water. Milk is an emulsion of butterfat in water, with the protein casein serving as the emulsifying agent. Mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil in vinegar, with egg yolk components as the emulsifying agents.

Condensation methods form colloidal particles by aggregation of molecules or ions. If the particles grow beyond the colloidal size range, drops or precipitates form, and no colloidal system results. Clouds form when water molecules aggregate and form colloid-sized particles. If these water particles coalesce to form adequately large water drops of liquid water or crystals of solid water, they settle from the sky as rain, sleet, or snow. Many condensation methods involve chemical reactions. A red colloidal suspension of iron(III) hydroxide may be prepared by mixing a concentrated solution of iron(III) chloride with hot water:

A colloidal gold sol results from the reduction of a very dilute solution of gold(III) chloride by a reducing agent such as formaldehyde, tin(II) chloride, or iron(II) sulfate:

Some gold sols prepared in 1857 are still intact (the particles have not coalesced and settled), illustrating the long-term stability of many colloids.


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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