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Continuous Analytical Measurement - Conductivity Measurement - Page 2

Article Index
Continuous Analytical Measurement - Conductivity Measurement
Dissociation and Ionization in Aqueous Solutions
Two-Electrode Conductivity Probes
Four-Electrode Conductivity Probes
Electrodeless Conductivity Probes

Dissociation and ionization in aqueous solutions

Pure water is a very poor conductor of electricity. Some water molecules will “ionize” into unbalanced halves (instead of H2O, you will find some negatively charged hydroxyl ions (OH-) and some positively charged hydrogen ions1 (H+), but the percentage is extremely small at room temperature.

Any substance that enhances electrical conductivity when dissolved in water is called an electrolyte. This enhancement of conductivity occurs due to the molecules of the electrolyte separating into positive and negative ions, which are then free to serve as electrical charge carriers. If the electrolyte in question is an ionically-bonded compound2 (table salt is a common example), the ions forming that compound naturally separate in solution, and this separation is called dissociation. If the electrolyte in question is a covalently-bonded compound3 (hydrogen chloride is an example), the separation of those molecules into positive and negative ions is called ionization.

Both dissociation and ionization refer to the separation of formerly joined atoms upon entering a solution. The difference between these terms is the type of substance that splits: “dissociation” refers to the division of ionic compounds (such as table salt), while “ionization” refers to covalent-bonded (molecular) compounds such as HCl which are not ionic in their pure state.

Ionic impurities added to water (such as salts and metals) immediately dissociate and become available to act as charge carriers. Thus, the measure of a water sample’s electrical conductivity is a fair estimate of ionic impurity concentration. Conductivity is therefore an important analytical measurement for certain water purity applications, such as the treatment of boiler feedwater, and the preparation of high-purity water used for semiconductor manufacturing.

It should be noted that conductivity measurement is a very non-specific form of analytical measurement. The conductivity of a liquid solution is a gross indication of its ionic content, but it tells us nothing specific about the type or types of ions present in the solution. Therefore, conductivity measurement is meaningful only when we have prior knowledge of the particular ionic species present in the solution (or when the purpose is to eliminate all ions in the solution such as in the case of ultra-pure water treatment, in which case we do not care about types of ions because our ideal goal is zero conductivity).


1Truth be told, free hydrogen ions are extremely rare in an aqueous solution. You are far more likely to find them bound to normal water molecules to form positive hydronium ions (H3O+). For simplicity’s sake, though, professional literatures often refers to these positive ions as “hydrogen” ions and even represent them symbolically as H+.

2Ionic compounds are formed when oppositely charged atomic ions bind together by mutual attraction. The distinguishing characteristic of an ionic compound is that it is a conductor of electricity in its pure, liquid state. That is, it readily separates into anions and cations all by itself. Even in its solid form, an ionic compound is already ionized, with its constituent atoms held together by an imbalance of electric charge. Being in a liquid state simply gives those atoms the physical mobility needed to dissociate.

3Covalent compounds are formed when neutral atoms bind together by the sharing of valence electrons. Such compounds are not good conductors of electricity in their pure, liquid states.



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