# Why do some substances ionize instead of dissolving in water?

My question can also be understood as

what make something electrolyte or nonelectrolyte?

I think this question stems mainly from my confusion with the definitions of ionizing and dissolving.

Dissolving of a ionic substance is due to ion-dipole attraction be/wn water molecules and ionic formula unit. If water molecule has enough attraction to break down the ionic compound, the the substance will dissolve.

Ionizing. Uh, all I know about it is...I don't really know. I think only ionic compound will ionize because it is composed of ions. So once it dissolves it basically ionize, right?

• Some compounds dissolve by ionising. – matt_black Feb 17 '17 at 19:24

## 1 Answer

Dissolution is simply the mixing of two phases to produce a single homogeneous phase. Ionization is a process by which a substance with no net charge is converted into one or more ions. It includes the mundane example of dissolving an ionic compound in water that dissociates into its constituent ions as well as things like forming ions by knocking electrons off with an electron beam. They're both surprisingly complex topics, but I think the question can be answered conceptually by considering a few compounds: $\ce{NaCl}$ , acetic acid ($\ce{CH3COOH}$), and glucose:

(source)

All dissolve readily in water, but only two of them are electrolytes. As you note, $\ce{NaCl}$ is composed of ions and breaks apart into $\ce{Na+}$ and $\ce{Cl-}$ in solution. An electrolyte is any compound that ionizes when dissolved in a given solution, so $\ce{NaCl}$ is an electrolyte in water. Moreover, because there's is no way for a salt to be dissolved without ionizing in water (i.e. $\ce{NaCl_{(aq)}}$ isn't possible), $\ce{NaCl}$ is known as a strong electrolyte as when it dissolves, it ionizes completely.

$\ce{CH3COOH}$ also dissolves readily in water, but isn't an ionic compound. Because it's a weak acid, it exists in this equilibrium in solution: $$\ce{CH3COOH_{(aq)} + H2O <=> CH3COO^{-}_{(aq)} + H3O+}$$

Because it can lose a proton to form ions, it does ionize in solution and is thus an electrolyte, but because it's a weak acid, the reaction doesn't go to completion and some $\ce{CH3COOH_{(aq)}}$ exists in solution making acetic acid a weak electrolyte as it doesn't completely ionize in solution.

Finally, glucose readily dissolves in acid, but none of its protons are readily lost so it doesn't ionize at all meaning that it isn't an electrolyte in water. Without getting too much into the thermodynamics of dissolution, the reason glucose is so soluble is because the many hydroxyl groups allow it to hydrogen bond extensively with water, where the equivalent compound without them, hexanal, is only slightly soluble due to the polar carbonyl group, and hexane is essentially insoluble.

• But dont NaCl also dissolve? – most venerable sir Dec 31 '14 at 20:24
• Yes, as I said, all three dissolve, but only two are electrolytes. – Michael DM Dryden Dec 31 '14 at 20:24
• So for NaCl you mean dissociation = dissolving – most venerable sir Dec 31 '14 at 20:26
• If acetic acid can lose proton, wouldn't it be ionic? – most venerable sir Dec 31 '14 at 20:29
• Dissolution is any process that results in two phases (whether it's liquid-liquid for acetic acid or solid-liquid for sodium chloride) making a single phase. Ionic compounds dissociate to do this, but many compounds (glucose, acetone, etc.) can interact enough with water enough to dissolve without ionizing. – Michael DM Dryden Dec 31 '14 at 20:33