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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


A Colloid or colloidal dispersion is a type of heterogeneous mixture. A colloid consists of two separate phases: a dispersed phase and a continuous phase. In a colloid, the dispersed phase is made of tiny particles or droplets that are distributed evenly throughout the continuous phase. The size of the dispersed phase particles are between 1 nm and 1000 nm in at least one dimension. Homogeneous mixtures with a dispersed phase in this size range may be called colloidal aerosols, colloidal emulsions, colloidal foams, colloidal dispersions or hydrosols. The dispersed phase particles or droplets are largely affected by the surface chemistry present in the colloid.

Because the size of the dispersed phase may be hard to measure, and because colloids look like solutions, colloids are sometimes characterized by their properties. For example, if a colloid has a solid phase dispersed in a liquid, the solid particles will not pass through a membrane, whereas the dissolved ions or molecules of a solution will pass through a membrane. In other words, dissolved components will diffuse through a membrane through which dispersed colloidal particles will not.

Some colloids are translucent because of the Tyndall effect, which is the scattering of light by particles in the colloid. Other colloids may be opaque or have a slight color.

Many familiar substances, including butter, milk, cream, aerosols (fog, smog, smoke), asphalt, inks, paints, glues, and sea foam are colloids. This field of study was introduced in 1861 by Scottish scientist Thomas Graham.

Classification of colloids

Colloids can be classified as follows:

  Dispersed Medium
Continuous Medium Gas
(All gases are soluble)
Liquid Aerosol
Examples: Fog, mist
Solid aerosol
Examples: Smoke, air particulates
Liquid Foam
Examples: Whipped cream
Examples: mayonnaise, hand cream
Examples: Milk, Paint, pigmented ink, blood
Solid Solid Foam
Examples: Aerogel, styrofoam, pumice
Examples: Butter, gelatin, jelly, cheese, opal
Solid Sol
Examples: Cranberry glass, ruby glass

Interaction between colloid particles

The following forces play an important role in the interaction of colloid particles:

  • Excluded Volume Repulsion: This refers to the impossibility of any overlap between hard particles.
  • Electrostatic interaction: Colloidal particles often carry an electrical charge and therefore attract or repel each other. The charge of both the continuous and the dispersed phase, as well as the mobility of the phases are factors affecting this interaction.
  • van der Waals forces: This is due to interaction between two dipoles which are either permanent or induced. Even if the particles do not have a permanent dipole, fluctuations of the electron density gives rise to a temporary dipole in a particle. This temporary dipole induces a dipole in particles nearby. The temporary dipole and the induced dipoles are then attracted to each other. This is known as van der Waals force and is always present, is short range and is attractive.
  • Entropic forces: According to the second law of thermodynamics, a system progresses to a state in which entropy is maximized. This can result in effective forces even between hard spheres.
  • Steric forces between polymer-covered surfaces or in solutions containing non-adsorbing polymer can modulate interparticle forces, producing an additional repulsive steric stabilization force or attractive depletion force between them.

Stabilization of a colloidal dispersion

Stabilization serves to prevent colloids from aggregating. Steric stabilization and electrostatic stabilization are the two main mechanisms for colloid stabilization. Electrostatic stabilization is based on the mutual repulsion of like electrical charges. Different phases generally have different charge affinities, so that a charge double-layer forms at any interface. Small particle sizes lead to enormous surface areas, and this effect is greatly amplified in colloids. In a stable colloid, mass of a dispersed phase is so low that its buoyancy or kinetic energy is too little to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between charged layers of the dispersing phase. The charge on the dispersed particles can be observed by applying an electric field: all particles migrate to the same electrode and therefore must all have the same sign charge!

Destabilizing a colloidal dispersion

Unstable colloidal dispersions form flocs as the particles aggregate due to interparticle attractions. In this way photonic glasses can be grown. This can be accomplished by a number of different methods:

  • Removal of the electrostatic barrier that prevents aggregation of the particles. This can be accomplished by the addition of salt to a suspension or changing the pH of a suspension to effectively neutralize or "screen" the surface charge of the particles in suspension. This removes the repulsive forces that keep colloidal particles separate and allows for coagulation due to van der Waals forces.
  • Addition of a charged polymer flocculant. Polymer flocculants can bridge individual colloidal particles by attractive electrostatic interactions. For example, negatively charged colloidal silica particles can be flocculated by the addition of a positively charged polymer.
  • Addition of nonadsorbed polymers called depletants that cause aggregation due to entropic effects.
  • Physical deformation of the particle (e.g. stretching) may increase the van der Waals forces more than stabilization forces (such as electrostatic) resulting coagulation of colloids at certain orientations.

Unstable colloidal suspensions of low volume fraction form clustered liquid suspensions wherein individual clusters of particles fall to the bottom of the suspension (or float to the top if the particles are less dense than the suspending medium) once the clusters are of sufficient size for the Brownian forces that work to keep the particles in suspension to be overcome by gravitational forces. However, colloidal suspensions of higher volume fraction form colloidal gels with viscoelastic properties. Viscoelastic colloidal gels such as toothpaste flow like liquids under shear but maintain their shape when shear is removed. It is for this reason that toothpaste can be squeezed from a toothpaste tube, but stays on the toothbrush after it is applied.

Measuring intensity of colloids

The intensity of colloids can be measured by a UV-Visable spectophotometer.

Colloids as a model system for atoms

In physics, colloids are an interesting model system for atoms. Micron-scale colloidal particles are large enough to be observed by optical techniques such as confocal microscopy. Many of the forces that govern the structure and behavior of matter such as excluded volume interactions or electrostatic forces govern the structure and behavior of colloidal suspensions. For example, the same techniques that can be used to model ideal gases can be used to model the behavior of a hard sphere colloidal suspension. Additionally, phase transitions in colloidal suspensions can be studied in real time using optical techniques and are analogous to phase transitions in liquids.

Colloids in biology

In the early 20th century, before enzymology was well understood, colloids were thought to be the key to the operation of enzymes; i.e., the addition of small quantities of an enzyme to a quantity of water would, in some fashion yet to be specified, subtly alter the properties of the water so that it would break down the enzyme's specific substrate, such as a solution of ATPase breaking down ATP. Furthermore, life itself was explainable in terms of the aggregate properties of all the colloidal substances that make up an organism. As more detailed knowledge of biology and biochemistry developed, of course, the colloidal theory was replaced by the macromolecular theory, which explains an enzyme as a collection of identical huge molecules that act as very tiny machines, freely moving about between the water molecules of the solution and individually operating on the substrate, no more mysterious than a factory full of machinery. The properties of the water in the solution are not altered, other than the simple osmotic changes that would be caused by the presence of any solute.


Chemistry The Central Science, 7th Ed. by Brown, Theodore, ISBN 013533480

See also

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