Mixtures - Real-life applications


In 1827, Scottish naturalist Robert Brown (1773-1858) was studying pollen grains under a microscope when he noticed that the grains underwent a curious zigzagging motion in the water. At first, he assumed that the motion had a biological explanation—in other words, that it resulted from life processes within the pollen—but later, he discovered that even pollen from long-dead plants behaved in the same way.

What Brown had observed was the suspension of a colloid—a particle intermediate in size between a molecule and a speck of dust—in the water. When placed in water or another fluid (both liquids and gases are called "fluids" in the physical sciences), a colloid forms a mixture similar both to a solution and a suspension. As with a solution, the composition remains homogeneous—the particles never settle to the bottom of the container. At the same time, however, the particles remain suspended rather than dissolved, rendering a cloudy appearance to the dispersion.

Almost everyone, especially as a child, has been fascinated by the colloidal dispersion of dust particles in a beam of sunlight. They seem to be continually in motion, as indeed they are, and this movement is called "Brownian motion" in honor of the man who first observed it. Yet Brown did not understand what he was seeing; only later did scientists recognize that Brownian motion is the result of movement on the part of molecules in a fluid. Even though the molecules are much smaller than the colloid, there are enough of them producing enough collisions to cause the colloid to be in constant motion.

Another remarkable aspect of dust particles floating in sunlight is the way that they cause a column of sunlight to become visible. This phenomenon, called the Tyndall effect after English physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), makes it seem as though we are actually seeing a beam of light. In fact, what we are seeing is the reflection of light off the colloidal dispersion. Another example of a colloidal dispersion occurs when a puff of smoke hangs in the air; furthermore, as we shall see, milk is a substance made up of colloids—in this case, particles of fat and protein suspended in water.


Miscibility is a qualitative term identifying the relative ability of two substances to dissolve in one another. Generally, water and water-based substances have high miscibility with regard to one another, as do oil and oil-based substances with one another. Oil and water, on the other hand (or substances based in either) have very low miscibility.

The reason is that water molecules are polar, meaning that the positive electric charge is in one region of the molecule, while the negative charge is in another region. Oil, on the other hand, is nonpolar, meaning that charges are more evenly distributed throughout the molecule. Trying to mix oil and water is thus rather like attempting to use a magnet to attract a nonmagnetic metal such as gold.


An emulsion is a mixture of two immiscible liquids such as oil and water—we will use these simple terms, with the idea that these stand for all oil-and water-soluble substances—by dispersing microscopic droplets of one liquid in another. In order to achieve this dispersion, there needs to be a "middle man," known as an emulsifier or surfactant. The surfactant, made up of molecules that are both water-and oil-soluble, acts as an agent for joining other substances in an emulsion.

All liquids have a certain degree of surface tension. This is what causes water on a hard surface to bead up instead of lying flat. (Mercury has an extremely high surface tension.) Surfactants break down this surface tension, enabling the marriage of two formerly immiscible liquids.

In an emulsion, millions of surfactants surround the dispersed droplets (known as the internal phase), shielding them from the other liquid (the external phase). Supposing oil is the internal phase, then the oil-soluble end of the surfactant points toward the oils, while the water-soluble side joins with the water of the external phase.


The resulting emulsion has physical (as opposed to chemical) properties different from those of the substances that make it up. Water and most oils are transparent, whereas emulsions are typically opaque and may have a lustrous, pearly gleam. Oil and water flow freely, but emulsions can be made to form thick, non-flowing creams.

Emulsions are inherently unstable: they are, as it were, only temporarily homogeneous. A good example of this is an oil-and-vinegar salad dressing, which has to be shaken before putting it on salad; otherwise, what comes out of the bottle is likely to be mainly oil, which floats to the top of the water-based vinegar. It is characteristic of emulsions that eventually gravity pulls them apart, so that the lighter substances float to the top. This process may take only a few minutes, as with the salad dressing; on the other hand, it can take thousands of years.


Surfactants themselves are often used in laundry or dish detergent, because most stains on plates or clothes are oil-based, whereas the detergent itself is applied to the clothes in an aqueous solution. As for emulsions, these are found in a wide variety of products, from cosmetics to paint to milk.

In the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, emulsions are used as a means of delivering the active ingredients of drugs, many of which are not water soluble, in a medium that is. Pharmaceutical manufacturers also use emulsions to make medicines more palatable (easier to take); to control dosage and improve effectiveness; and to improve the usefulness of topical drugs such as ointments, which must contend with both oily and water-soluble substances on the skin.

The oils and other conditioning agents used in hair-care products would leave hair limp and sticky if applied by themselves. Instead, these products are applied in emulsions that dilute the oils in other materials. Emulsions are also used in color photography, as well as in the production of pesticides and fungicides.

Paints and inks, too, are typically emulsified substances, and these sometimes come in the form of dispersions akin to those of colloids. As we have seen, in a dispersion fine particles of solids are suspended in a liquid. Surfactants are used to bond the particles to the liquid, though paint must be shaken, usually with the aid of a high-speed machine, before it is consistent enough to apply.

As mentioned earlier, milk is a form of emulsion that contains particles of milk fat or cream dispersed in water. Light strikes the microscopic fat and protein colloids, resulting in the familiar white color. Other examples of emulsified foods include not only salad dressings, but gravies and various sauces, peanut butter, ice cream, and other items. Not only does emulsion affect the physical properties of foods, but it may enhance the taste by coating the tongue with emulsified oils.


The wondrous invention called soap, which has made the world a cleaner place, exhibits several of the properties we have discussed. It is a mixture with surfactant qualities, and in powdered form, it can form something close to a true solution with water. Discovered probably by the Phoenicians around 600 B.C. , it was made in ancient times by boiling animal fat (tallow) or vegetable oils with an alkali or base of wood ashes.

This was a costly process, and for many centuries, only the wealthy could afford soap—a fact that contributed to the notorious lack of personal hygiene that prevailed among Europeans of the Middle Ages. In fact, the situation did not change until late in the eighteenth century, when the work of two French chemists yielded a more economical manufacturing method.

In 1790, Nicholas Leblanc (1742-1806) developed a process for creating sodium hydroxide (called caustic soda at the time) from sodium chloride, or ordinary table salt. This made for an inexpensive base or alkali, with which soap manufacturers could combine natural fats and oils. Then in 1823, Michel Eugéne Chevreul (1786-1889) showed that fat is a compound of glycerol with organic acids, a breakthrough that led to the use of fatty acids in producing soaps.


Soap as it is made today comes from a salt of an alkali metal, such as sodium or potassium, combined with a mixture of carboxylic acids ("fatty acids"). These carboxylic acids are the result of a reaction called saponification, involving triglycerides and a base, such as sodium hydroxide. Saponification breaks the triglycerides into their component fatty acids; then, the base neutralizes these to salts. This reaction produces glycerin, a hydrocarbon bonded to a hydroxyl (-OH) group. (Hydrocarbons are discussed in the essays on Organic Chemistry; Polymers.)

In general, the formula for soap is RCOOX, where X stands for the alkali metals, and R for the hydrocarbon chain. Because it is a salt (meaning that it is formed from the reaction of an acid with a base), soap partially separates into its component ions in water. The active ion is RCOO-, whose two ends behave in different fashions, making it a surfactant. The hydrocarbon end (R-) is said to be lipophilic, or "oil-loving," which is appropriate, since most oils are hydrocarbons. On the other hand, the carboxylate end (-COO-) is hydrophilic, or "water-loving." As a result, soap can dissolve in water, but can also clean greasy stains.

When soap is mixed with water, it does not form a true homogeneous mixture or solution due to the presence of hydrocarbons. These attract one another, forming spherical aggregates called micelles. The lipophilic "tails" of the hydrocarbons are turned toward the interior of the micelle, while the hydrophilic heads remain facing toward the water that forms the external phase.


We have primarily discussed liquid mixtures, but in fact mixtures can be gaseous or even solid—as for example in the case of an alloy, a mixture of two or more metals. Alloys are usually created by melting the component metals, then mixing them together in specific proportions, but an alloy can also be created by bonding metal powders.

The structure of an elemental metal includes tight "electron sea" bonds, which are discussed in the essay on Metals. These, combined with the metal's crystalline structure, create a situation in which internal bonding is very strong, but nondirectional. As a result, most metals form alloys, but again, this is not the same as a compound: the elemental metals retain their identity in these metal composites, forming characteristic fibers, beads, and other shapes.


One of the most important alloys in early human history was a 25:75 mixture of tin and copper that gave its name to an entire stage of technological development: the Bronze Age (c. 3300-1200 B.C. ). This combination formed a metal much stronger than either copper or tin, and bronze remained dominant until the discovery of new iron-smelting methods ushered in the Iron Age in about 1200 B.C.

Another important alloy of the ancient world was brass, which is about one-third zinc to two-thirds copper. Introduced in the period c. 1400-c. 1200 B.C , brass was one of the metals that defined the world in which the Bible was written. Biblical references to it abound, as in the famous passage from I Corinthians 13 (read at many weddings), in which the Apostle Paul proclaims that "without love, I am as sounding brass." Some biblical scholars, however, maintain that some of the references to brass in the Old Testament are actually mistranslations of "bronze."

Tin, copper, and antimony form pewter, a soft mixture that can be molded when cold and beaten regularly without turning brittle. Though used in Roman times, it became most popular in England from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, when it offered a cheap substitute for silver in plates, cups, candelabra, and pitchers. The pewter turned out by colonial American metalsmiths is still admired for its beauty and functionality.

As for iron, it appears in nature as an impure ore, but even when purified, it is typically alloyed with other elements. Among the well-known forms of iron are cast iron, a variety of mixtures containing carbon and/or silicon; wrought iron, which contains small amounts of various other elements, such as nickel, cobalt, copper, chromium, and molybdenum; and steel. Steel is a mixture of iron with manganese and chromium, purified with a blast of hot air. Steel is also sometimes alloyed with aluminum in a one-third/two-thirds mixture to make duraluminum, developed for the superstructures of German zeppelins during World War I.


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