What is a Solvent? - Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Nicola McDougal

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

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Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. They have a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. They also are certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

Though they are typically associated with science labs and classrooms, solvents, or substances containing solutions, exist in many situations in everyday life. In this lesson, learn to define a solvent, recognize examples, and understand the concept of ~'like dissolves like~'. Updated: 10/11/2021

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.

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  • 0:00 What Is a Solvent?
  • 1:48 Examples of Solvents
  • 3:44 Like Dissolves Like
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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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Additional Activities

Finding Solvents

In this activity, students will be applying what they've learned about solvents to identify the components of solutions in their everyday life. For example, students might see Kool-aid in the fridge and identify water as the solvent and the Kool-aid powder as the solute.


In this activity, you'll be looking for solutions in your everyday life to identify solutes. To complete the activity, find 10 different solutions and record them in the table below. Then, identify the solute and the solvent in each solution. The first one has been done for you as an example.

Kool-aidWaterKool-aid powder

Analysis Questions

  1. Which solutions did you find that were aqueous? Were these solutions more or less common in your analysis?
  2. How were you able to identify the solvent in each solution?
  3. Why do you think it is important to understand solutions?


Students should be able to identify that any solution that has water as a solvent is an aqueous solution. Since water is a universal solvent, these solutions should be common in their analysis of solutions in their home. The solvent is the substance that is in a greater quantity in the solution. Solutions are important because clearly, they make up so many substances in our lives, and even inside our bodies. Much of our internal composition is made of aqueous solutions and, thus, understanding solutions helps us understand our bodies.

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