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Nonelectrolytes vs. Electrolytes: Solutions, Compounds and Examples

James Jerden, Elizabeth (Nikki) Wyman
  • Author
    James Jerden

    James holds a doctorate in geochemistry from Virginia Tech and a master’s degree in geology from Boston College. He has worked as a research scientist for over 20 years and has developed and taught college-level geoscience courses throughout his career.

  • Instructor
    Elizabeth (Nikki) Wyman

    Nikki has a master's degree in teaching chemistry and has taught high school chemistry, biology and astronomy.

Explore electrolyte and nonelectrolyte solutions. Learn about electrolytes vs. nonelectrolytes and how to identify electrolytes in a compound. Updated: 11/06/2021

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HOW TO IDENTIFY ELECTROLYTES

How to identify electrolytes is one of the basic principles of chemistry. As the name implies, the identification of electrolytes has to do with electricity and electrical charge. When trying to determine if a substance is an electrolyte vs. nonelectrolyte, the question that must be answered is: does it conduct electricity when melted or dissolved? If a material is electrically conductive in its molten or dissolved state, then it is an electrolyte. If it does not conduct electricity as a liquid, it is a nonelectrolyte.

A simple way to test if a material is an electrolyte or nonelectrolyte is to make an electrical circuit in which two metal bars are hooked up to the positive and negative poles of a battery to create a voltage difference between them. These positively and negatively charged metal electrodes are then immersed in a solution or melt of the substance we are interested in testing. A lightbulb and a device that measures electrical current flow (i.e., an ampere meter or ammeter) are included in the circuit to determine how much electricity flows through the solution between the immersed electrodes. If the solution contains an electrolyte, the lightbulb will glow, and the ammeter will measure a relatively high current flow. If the solution is a nonelectrolyte, the lightbulb will not light up, and very low current flow will be measured.

This simple experimental setup essentially measures the electrical conductance or conductivity of the liquid we are testing. Conductivity is a measure of the materials ability to conduct electricity. Different dissolved substances have different levels of conductivity. Strongly conductive materials are called strong electrolytes. These substances would cause the lightbulb in our experimental setup to glow brightly and register high current flows. There are other substances whose solutions only weakly conduct electricity. These weak electrolyte solutions would only dimly light up the bulb in our circuit and would register relatively low current flows on the ammeter. Some substances do not conduct electricity at all when dissolved or melted. For these nonelectrolytes no current would flow through our experimental conductivity circuit. Some everyday examples of strong and weak electrolytes are table salt (sodium chloride) and vinegar (dilute acetic acid), respectively. In comparison, sugar (sucrose) is an example of a nonelectrolyte.

In the following sections, we will discuss in more detail why electrolytes conduct electricity and why nonelectrolytes do not. We will also list and describe more examples of electrolytes and nonelectrolytes and discuss the essential roles that they play in natural, biological, and industrial processes.

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ELECTROLYTE SOLUTION

As discussed above, an electrolyte is a substance that conducts electricity when it is in a molten or dissolved state. This section will focus on dissolved electrolytes, specifically electrolytes dissolved in water, since these are the most common and important types of electrolyte solutions. We will also summarize the chemical principles that underly why and how electrolyte solutions conduct electricity.

WHAT IS A SOLUTION

Both electrolytes and nonelectrolytes can be dissolved to form solutions. The substance that dissolves in a solution is called the solute, and the bulk material into which it is dissolved is called the solvent. In this lesson, we are primarily interested in solutions in which water is the solvent, and the electrolyte and nonelectrolyte substances are the solutes. These water-based mixtures are called aqueous solutions (based on the Latin word for water: aqua). So, an aqueous solution is a homogeneous mixture in which one or more substances are dissolved in water. A homogeneous mixture is a solution in which the solutes and solvents are mixed uniformly at the atomic or molecular scale.

IONS AND CHEMICAL BONDS

Many common minerals, salts, and some organic materials are composed of charged particles that break apart to form ions when they dissolve in water to form aqueous solutions. Ions are electrically charged particles created when atoms lose or gain electrons. Atoms are composed of a nucleus of positively charged particles (protons) and neutrally charged particles (neutrons) surrounded by negatively charged particles (electrons). Inter-atomic interactions that take place during chemical reactions cause some atoms to donate electrons to other atoms. The sharing of electrons between atoms results in the chemical bonds that hold substances together.

The sharing of electrons between atoms forms strong inter-atomic links called covalent bonds. When an atom completely loses electrons to another atom, it creates an ionic bond. In ionic bonding, the atom donating electrons becomes positively charged, and the atom receiving the electrons becomes negatively charged. In this type of bonding, the electrical attraction between the positively and negatively charged atoms holds the material together. A substance held together primarily through ionic bonding is called an ionic compound or ionic solid. A typical example of an electrolyte compound is table salt (sodium chloride) which is composed of a positively charged sodium ion ({eq}Na^+ {/eq}) and a negatively charged chlorine ion ({eq}Cl^- {/eq}). Ionic compounds such as salt are electrolytes.


Schematic image of the arrangement of charged particles (ions) within the structure of a salt (sodium chloride) crystal. Sodium chloride (table salt) is a familiar example of an electrolyte compound.

Schematic image of the arrangement of charged particles (ions) within the structure of a salt (sodium chloride) crystal.  Sodium chloride (table salt) is a familiar example of an electrolyte compound.

DO ELECTROLYTES DISSOLVE IN WATER?

As discussed above, the key characteristic of electrolyte compounds (ionic compounds) is that they form electrically conductive liquids when melted or dissolved in water. When an ionic compound such as sodium chloride dissolves in water, its ions separate and disperse uniformly into the solution. The presence of these charged particles makes the solution electrically conductive. The positively charged ions in solution are called cations, and the negatively charged ions are called anions.


{eq}\text{NaCl}(solid)\;{\rightleftarrows}\;\text{Na}^{+}(dissolved)\;+\;\text{Cl}^{-}(dissolved) {/eq}


As mentioned above, ionic compounds are also referred to as electrolyte compounds or simply as electrolytes. The term electrolyte combines the Greek word for electrical (electro) with a suffix meaning to divide (lyte). Electrolyte compounds (electrolytes) are substances in which the electrical charges are divided into cations and anions. An electrolyte solution is one created by dissolving an ionic compound (electrolyte). When an electrolyte produces a high proportion of ions, when it dissolves, it forms a strong electrolyte solution. However, some substances only partially dissociate into ions when they dissolve. These substances are thus referred to as weak electrolytes and result in weakly conductive solutions.

Examples of Electrolyte Solutions

Electrolyte solutions are ubiquitous. Common examples such as residential tap water and saltwater are used by billions of people every day. There are also less familiar examples that play essential roles in biological, environmental, and industrial systems worldwide. Many of the key examples of these are identified and described in the table below.

Example Ions Formed Occurrence and Uses
Sodium Chloride Na+, Cl- >Environmental: major component of sea water
>Biological: Na+ is essential for proper cell hydration, Cl- is essential for maintaining internal pH levels.
>Industrial: Sodium chloride brines are used to provide dye coverage and adhesion in the textile industry.
Potassium Chloride Na+, Cl- >Environmental: major component of seawater
>Biological: K+ is essential for nervous system and muscle function.
>Industrial: Potassium chloride is used for surface treatment and as a hardening agent in the metal processing industry.
Calcium Phosphate Ca2+, PO42- >Environmental: naturally occurring deposits serve as major source of phosphorus.
>Biological: Ca2+ and PO42- form teeth and bone.
>Industrial: used primarily as fertilizer in agricultural industries.
Magnesium Sulfate (epsom salt) Mg2+, SO42- >Environmental: Major constituent of evaporite deposits that form around saline lakes in arid regions.
>Biological: Mg2+ is essential for nervous system and muscle function.
>Industrial: used to prepare cement insulation panels used in the construction industry.
Hydrochloric Acid H+, Cl- >Environmental: rare natural occurrence, may be produced due to volcanic outgassing.
>Biological: major component of gastric acid used to digest food.
>Industrial: used in metallurgical industry to remove oxides from steel surfaces before subsequent processing
Sulfuric Acid H+, SO42- >Environmental: formed by the natural weathering of sulfide minerals such as pyrite (FeS2).
>Biological: no uses - destroys biological materials.
>Industrial: acid used in lead automobile batteries.
Acetic Acid (vinegar) H+, CH3COO- >Environmental: produced by bacteria in soils, also occurs in rotting fruit.
>Biological: plays a role in the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats.
>Industrial: used in chemical industry to produce reagents such as acetic anhydride and metal acetates.


Crystals of the electrolyte compound sodium chloride (table salt).

Crystals of the electrolyte compound sodium chloride (table salt).

NONELECTROLYTE SOLUTION

A nonelectrolyte is a compound that does not form an electrically conductive liquid when it dissolves or melts. That is, a material that does not separate into ions when melted or dissolved. A common example of a nonelectrolyte is sugar (sucrose). When sugar dissolves (i.e., becomes a solute) in the solvent water, its molecules do not break apart, so ions are not formed. This can be represented by the simple dissolution reaction shown below:


{eq}C_{12}H_{22}O_{11}(solid) \rightleftharpoons C_{12}H_{22}O_{11}(dissolved) {/eq}


A nonelectrolyte list of examples is shown in the table below. As with the electrolyte examples, nonelectrolyte solutions also play important roles in biological, and industrial processes.

Example Occurrence and Uses
Sugar (lactose, glucose, sucrose, fructose) >Environmental/Biological: lactose occurs in milk products, glucose in fruit, fructose in honey and sucrose is from sugar cane plants.
>Industrial: besides the food industry, sugar is used as a clean carbon source by the fermentation industry and used for the production of pharmaceuticals.
Ethyl Alcohol >Environmental/Biological: produced as a metabolic byproduct of yeast and is found in over-ripe fruit.
>Industrial: used in chemical industries as a precursor for other organic compounds (e.g., acetic acid, ethyl halides, ethyl esters, and ethyl amines.
Acetone >Environmental/Biological: found in plants, volcanic gases and as a product of fat breakdown in animals.
>Industrial: used in many industries as a solvent in epoxies, paints and varnishes.
Urea >Environmental/Biological: metabolic product of protein breakdown.
>Industrial: used as a fertilizer (source of nitrogen) for agricultural industries.


Aggregates of the nonelectrolyte compound sugar (sucrose).

Aggregates of the nonelectrolyte compound sugar (sucrose).

ELECTROLYTE VS. NONELECTROLYTE

As discussed above, the primary factor distinguishing electrolyte vs. nonelectrolyte solutions is that the former conducts electricity and the latter does not. This difference is caused by the tendency of electrolytes to dissociate into ions when dissolved and the tendency of nonelectrolytes to dissolve as neutral (not electrically charged) molecules (e.g., as shown in the sugar dissolution reaction shown above). The primary differences between electrolyte vs. nonelectrolyte are shown in the following table.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you identify a Nonelectrolyte?

The primary distinction between electrolyte vs. nonelectrolyte substances is that the former conducts electricity when dissolved or melted and the latter does not. Therefore, to determine whether a substance is a nonelectrolyte, one could dissolve or melt the material and then use a conductivity meter (i.e., an instrument that measures electrical conductivity) to determine whether the liquid is electrically conductive. If the solution or melt is not electrically conductive, the substance is a nonelectrolyte.

What are examples of Nonelectrolytes?

A nonelectrolyte list of typical examples includes: sugars (lactose, glucose, sucrose, fructose), alcohols (e.g., ethanol, methanol), organic solvents (e.g., acetone, toluene, benzene), and urea.

Is NaCl a Nonelectrolyte?

Sodium chloride (NaCl) is not a nonelectrolyte. This is because NaCl breaks into charged particles or ions (i.e., a positively charged sodium ion and a negatively charged chlorine ion) when it dissolves or melts. The presence of ions in a liquid make it electrically conductive. The primary distinction between electrolyte vs. nonelectrolyte substances is that the former conducts electricity when dissolved or melted and the latter does not. Therefore, NaCl is an electrolyte rather than a nonelectrolyte.

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