The spontaneous redistribution of a substance is due to the random motion of the molecules (or atoms or ions) of the substance. Because of the random nature of the motion of molecules, the rate of diffusion of molecules out of any region in a substance is proportional to the concentration of molecules in that region, and the rate of diffusion into the region is proportional to the concentration of molecules in the surrounding regions. Thus, while molecules continuously flow both into and out of all regions, the net flow is from regions of higher concentration to regions of lower concentration. Generally, the greater the difference in concentration, the faster the diffusion.
Since an increase in temperature represents an increase in the average molecular speed, diffusion occurs faster at higher temperatures. At any given temperature, small, light molecules (such as H2, hydrogen gas) diffuse faster than larger, more massive molecules (such as N2, nitrogen gas) because they are traveling faster, on the average (see heat; kinetic-molecular theory of gases). According to Graham's law (for Thomas Graham), the rate at which a gas diffuses is inversely proportional to the square root of the density of the gas.
Diffusion often masks gravitational effects. For example, if a relatively dense gas (such as CO2, carbon dioxide) is introduced at the bottom of a vessel containing a less dense gas (such as H2, hydrogen gas), the dense gas will diffuse upward and the less dense gas will diffuse downward. It is true, however, that at equilibrium the two gases will not be uniformly mixed. There will be some variation in the density and composition of the gas mixture; at the top of the vessel the gas mixture will be slightly less concentrated, and there will be a slight preponderance of molecules of the less dense gas. These differences, which are due to gravity, are almost impossible to measure in the laboratory, although they interact with other factors in determining the distribution of gases in planetary atmosphere.
Diffusion is not confined to gases; it can take place with matter in any state. For example, salt diffuses (dissolves) into water; water diffuses (evaporates) into the air. It is even possible for a solid to diffuse into another solid; e.g., gold will diffuse into lead, although at room temperature this diffusion is very slow. Generally, gases diffuse much faster than liquids, and liquids much faster than solids. Diffusion may take place through a semipermeable membrane, which allows some, but not all, substances to pass. In solutions, when the liquid solvent passes through the membrane but the solute (dissolved solid) is retained, the process is called osmosis. Diffusion of a solute across a membrane is called dialysis, especially when some solutes pass and others are retained.
Process by which there is a net flow of matter from a region of high concentration to one of low concentration. It occurs fastest in liquids and slowest in solids. Diffusion can be observed by adding a few drops of food colouring to a glass of water. The scent from an open bottle of perfume quickly permeates a room because of random motion of the vapour molecules. A spoonful of salt placed in a bowl of water will eventually spread throughout the water.
Learn more about diffusion with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Diffusion is the net movement of particles (typically molecules) from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration by uncoordinated random movement. In a phase with uniform temperature, absent external net forces acting on the particles, the diffusion process will eventually lead to complete mixing.
Diffusion is part of transport phenomena. Of the material transport mechanisms, diffusion is known as a slow one. Molecular diffusion is generally superimposed on, and often masked by, other transport phenomena such as convection, which tend to be much faster. However, the slowness of diffusion can be the reason for its importance: diffusion is often encountered as a step in a sequence of events, and the velocity of the whole chain of events is that of the slowest step. For example, the rate at which a chemical reaction progresses can be entirely limited by the rate of diffusion of reactants/products to/from the place where the reaction occurs.
The speed of diffusion can be approximately illustrated as follows (at room temperature)
Diffusion is a statistical phenomenon in that the chance of a molecule "jumping" from one volume to another depends on the number of molecules in the first volume, so molecules in volumes which have a relatively high initial concentration tend to disperse to less concentrated areas until a balance of exchange (equilibrium) is reached.
which is the most general expression for the diffusion coefficient, not referring to any microscopic model.
The spreading of any quantity that can be described by the diffusion equation or a random walk model (e.g. concentration, heat, momentum, ideas, price) can be called diffusion. Some of the most important examples are listed below.
Metabolism and respiration rely in part upon diffusion in addition to bulk or active processes. For example, in the alveoli of mammalian lungs, due to differences in partial pressures across the alveolar-capillary membrane, oxygen diffuses into the blood and carbon dioxide diffuses out. Lungs contain a large surface area to facilitate this gas exchange process.
Diffusion is easy to observe, but care must be taken to avoid a mixture of diffusion and other transport phenomena.
It can be demonstrated with a wide glass tubed paper, two corks, some cotton wool soaked in ammonia solution and some red litmus paper. By corking the two ends of the wide glass tube and plugging the wet cotton wool with one of the corks, and litmus paper can be hung with a thread within the tube. It will be observed that the red litmus papers turn blue.
This is because the ammonia molecules travel by diffusion from the higher concentration in the cotton wool to the lower concentration in the rest of the glass tube. As the ammonia solution is alkaline, the red litmus papers turn blue. By changing the concentration of ammonia, the rate of color change of the litmus papers can be changed.
Another simpler way to demonstrate diffusion is to drop a drop of ink by dropper into a glass of water. One can see the ink spreads slowly from the initial region where the ink first encountered the water surface, to everywhere in the glass. This is because the dye molecules in the ink diffuses from the high concentration region to other lower concentration regions.