What is a Solvent? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a Solvent?
  • 1:48 Examples of Solvents
  • 3:44 Like Dissolves Like
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nicola McDougal

Nicky has taught a variety of chemistry courses at college level. Nicky has a PhD in Physical Chemistry.

In this lesson, we'll learn about solvents. We'll learn what they are and understand the role they play in a solution. By the end of the lesson, you will be able to identify a solvent as well as predict what will dissolve in it.

What is a Solvent?

What do cola, a brass saxophone, and a filled tooth cavity have in common? They are all examples of solutions containing solvents. A solution is a homogeneous mixture. This simply means the components are uniformly mixed together. For example, your first sip of coffee is the same consistency as your final sip. A solution is made up of a solute, which is the substance being dissolved, and a solvent, the substance in the largest amount into which the solute is dissolved.

Wow, that is a lot of sol- words. I often have a hard time remembering which one is which. Here is one way I remember.

If we write:

Solute + Solvent = Solution

We can see the solution is on the right side of the equals sign. A solution is a similar word for answer, and the answer is always on the right side of an equal side. So, we know that the solution is the solute and solvent added together.

Let's now focus on the solute and solvent. We can remove the sol because it doesn't help us, and we are left with ute and vent. Ute is almost like the word cute, and many cute things are small: cute kittens, puppies, and baby rabbits. Solute is in the smallest amount, and it is the one being dissolved. The other word is vent. When you vent your anger it is normally done in a big way. Solvent is in the largest amount. This is the one doing the dissolving.

Examples of Solvents

One solution we are very used to is dissolving a small amount of solid sugar into our large cup of liquid coffee. Here, the sugar is the solute and the coffee is the solvent. It is true that many solutes are solid and that many solvents are liquid. There are plenty of examples of both solvents and solutes where they are gases, liquids, and solids.

This table shows some examples:

Solution Phase of Solution Phase of Solute Phase of Solvent
Air gas gas gas
Gin and tonic liquid liquid (gin) liquid (flavored water)
Brass solid solid (Zinc) solid (Copper)
Soda liquid gas (CO2) liquid (flavored water)
Seawater liquid solid (salt) liquid (water)
Filled tooth solid liquid (mercury) solid (silver and tin)

Here, we have different solutions of air, gin and tonic, brass, soda, seawater, and a filled tooth. The phase of each component is also shown. Let us now return to our examples from the beginning of the lesson.

First, look at soda. Here we have CO2 gas solute being dissolved in a large amount of flavored water solvent. Our saxophone is made of brass, and it is an example of solid zinc being dissolved in a large amount of copper solvent. The final example is the filled tooth. This consists of liquid mercury being dissolved into solid solvent of silver and tin. In each case, the solvent is always the substance in excess, and the solute is the substance in the smallest amount. Together they form a solution.

Water is a very common solvent. Solutions with water as the solvent are called aqueous solutions. Aqueous solutions are very important in nature and biology. Water is all around us and is called the universal solvent. This is because many, many different solutes dissolve in it.

Not everything dissolves in water though, so let us think briefly about that.

Like Dissolves Like

From experience, we know that sugar dissolves well in coffee, but oil and water do not mix. Try as you might, no amount of shaking will force them to mix and stay mixed. They are both liquids, they seem similar, so why won't they form a solution?

To help explain, let's imagine you and your friends are all fans of the same heavy rock band. You hang out a lot together because you have very similar interests. We can say your group is held together by your love of heavy metal. It's Friday night, and you and your friends are going to visit two places.

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