What is a Weak Electrolyte?

G. Robinson

A weak electrolyte is a type of chemical substance that does not dissolve or break down in water and is a poor conductor of electricity, if it conducts it at all. The term “electrolyte” has a specific scientific and medical meaning, but it’s most commonly understood to be any form of salt that carries an electrical charge. Electrolytes help people maintain a balanced body chemistry, and are also useful in a number of industrial and manufacturing settings. Saying than an electrolyte is “weak” is usually a statement about the breakdown of its ionic charges, and allows researchers to predict how it will react in a given solution or under certain circumstances. A strong electrolyte is generally completely ionized in water and gives equal numbers of cations, or positively-charged ions, and anions, or negatively charged ions. A electrolyte classed as "weak," on the other hand, will ionize only slightly in water and produce few ions, so these solutions are poor conductors of electricity.

Weak electrolytes are poor conductors of electricity because they only ionize slightly in water.
Weak electrolytes are poor conductors of electricity because they only ionize slightly in water.

Assessing Electrolyte Strength

The electrolytic strength of a substance can usually be determined by measuring the electrical conductance of a solution of the substance of known concentration. Tables are available listing the Qsp or ion constant of many substances, which is a measure of their degree of ionization.

Telling a weak electrolyte apart from a strong one just by inspecting its chemical formula is not so straightforward. Weak compounds will usually be composed of covalent bonds, or chemical bonds in which electrons are shared by two atoms. A strong electrolyte will have at least one ionic bond, in which electrons from one atom are transferred to another to produce two ions that are then held together by electrostatic forces. Most chemical bonds have both some ionic and covalent character, however, and so some knowledge of chemistry is required to make a reasonable estimate of a compound's electrolytic strength.

In general, though, most organic acids and their salts, and the salts of organic bases, are weak from an electrolyte perspective. A substance with low water solubility may also be classified weak. It’s important to note, though, that from a technical standpoint, solubility is not the same as electrolytic strength.

Ionization in Water

Pure water itself is not a good conductor of electricity, and distilled or deionized water, from which all ions have been removed, won't readily conduct an electrical current. If a strong electrolyte like table salt, NaCl, is added, however, the salt will dissolve to give Na+ ions and Cl- ions. The Na+ are capable of accepting electrons from the negative pole of the power source while the Cl- will transport electrons to the positive pole, resulting in a net flow of electricity through the solution. The more salt that's added, the more conducting the solution will be, up to the point of saturation.

In a weak electrolyte, this dissociation into ions occurs only to a small extent, typically much less than 10%. The vast bulk of the weak electrolyte remains in its original unionized form in solution. In such cases, there are insufficient ions present to carry an electric current.

Understanding Non-Electrolytes

In addition to weak and strong electrolytes, non-electrolytes are substances that don't ionize to any appreciable extent in aqueous solution, and their solutions don't conduct electricity at all. Most organic substances, unless they contain an acid or base functionality, are non-conductors and therefore non-electrolytes. Sugar and alcohol, for example, are organic compounds with no acid or base functionality and will therefore not produce ions in solution.

Practical Applications

Understanding the different ways substances bond and react on a chemical level matters to most manufacturing disciplines, and quickly identifying and isolating electrolytes by strength is an important part of many different chemical reactions. Chemists and researchers often use this sort of knowledge in any number of different experiments and tests in order to achieve the right balance of acids and bases. This is crucial to many pharmaceutical manufacturing endeavors and medical trials, but also has implications for things like engineered food chemistry and the composition of household chemicals and even beauty products.

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