Osmosis: Everything you know about it is (probably) wrong

Apr 01, 2013

Osmosis – the flow of a solvent across a semipermeable membrane from a region of lower to higher solute concentration – is a well-developed concept in physics and biophysics. The problem is that, even though the concept is important to plant and human physiology, osmosis is understood in biology and chemistry in a much simpler – and often incorrect – way.

"A range of surprising misconceptions about osmosis continue to appear in papers, web sites and textbooks," says Eric Kramer, professor of physics at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Mass. "Wrong ideas about osmosis are especially common in educational materials aimed at students of chemistry and biology. Once learned, these errors influence the thinking of professionals throughout their careers."

The thermodynamic theory of osmosis was published by J.W. Gibbs in 1897, and during the next half-century dozens of other scientists published explanations for it in terms of interactions between the solute and solvent molecules. "Many of the greatest scientists of the 20th century took a turn at it," says Kramer, "A textbook in 1951 offered the first coherent telling of the whole theory."

Though have had this complete and correct explanation since the 50s, chemistry and biology never caught up. Why? One reason is because the incorrect theory is much easier. "The thermodynamic explanation can be pretty dense, and features , which can be scary for people," he says. "The correct theory would be harder to teach at an introductory level, although I'm working with a textbook author who plans to spread the word."

Reach back into your memory for your first science lesson on osmosis. It probably involved a demonstration with a bag of sugar with holes poked in it. When dunked into water, the water rushed into the bag. Using this example of osmosis, Kramer lays out the common misconceptions:

  • "The first misconception is that osmosis is limited to liquids," he says. "But it works just fine for gases, too."
  • "Another misconception that osmosis requires an attractive force," he says. "It doesn't. When water fills the bag of sugar, it's not because the sugar is pulling the water in. That's not part of the explanation."
  • "A misconception is that osmosis always happens down a concentration gradient," he says. "When you dissolve something in water, the water doesn't necessarily get more diluted. Depending on the substance, it can get more concentrated."
  • "Anther is that you don't need to invoke a force to explain why the water flows into the bag. It's thought that, like diffusion, it's a spontaneous process," he says. "But, in fact, there is a force. It's complicated how it happens, but it turns out that the membrane – or the bag, in the familiar lab demonstration – exerts a force that pushes the water in."
"These misconceptions are surprisingly robust," says Kramer. "Nearly all have been discussed by other authors during the long history of osmotic research, and yet they continue to find believers in each generation of professionals. While authors in physics and biophysics have generally settled on the correct understanding of osmosis, these ideas have not penetrated into the fields of . It's very surprising that, in 60 years, no physicist talked to a chemist long enough to figure this out."

Kramer is co-author, with colleague and chemist David Myers, of the article, "Osmosis is not driven by dilution," in the April issue of Trends in Plant Science. They have authored a previous article, "Five popular misconceptions about ," in the American Journal of Physics (August, 2012).

Explore further: Experiment with speeding ions verifies relativistic time dilation to new level of precision

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

From seawater to freshwater with a nanotechnology filter

Jun 01, 2011

In this month's Physics World, Jason Reese, Weir Professor of Thermodynamics and Fluid Mechanics at the University of Strathclyde, describes the role that carbon nanotubes (CNTs) could play in the desalination of wat ...

Britain unveils desalination plant for London reservoirs

Apr 25, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Britain has brought online a new desalination plant near London capable of providing the city with 150 million gallons (568 million litres) of water per day, should the need arise. At a cost ...

Water wonder

May 13, 2011

A brilliant water saving idea by UNSW engineering academics Greg Leslie and Bruce Sutton has impressed the judges on ABC TV’s New Inventors program.

Energy-efficient water purification

Jan 14, 2009

Water and energy are two resources on which modern society depends. As demands for these increase, researchers look to alternative technologies that promise both sustainability and reduced environmental impact. Engineered ...

Recycling water in space

Jun 20, 2011

During the last space shuttle flight, astronauts will test a new method for recycling 'used' water. Water is essential for life, and having access to water beyond Earth will be a major obstacle for future ...

Saltwater solution to save crops

Sep 11, 2008

Technology under development at the University of New South Wales could offer new hope to farmers in drought-affected and marginal areas by enabling crops to grow using salty groundwater.

Recommended for you

How Paramecium protozoa claw their way to the top

Sep 19, 2014

The ability to swim upwards – towards the sun and food supplies – is vital for many aquatic microorganisms. Exactly how they are able to differentiate between above and below in often murky waters is ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

philw1776
3 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2013
Got me on #s 3 and 4. Thanks for the science.
rwinners
1 / 5 (1) Apr 01, 2013
"Anther misconception is that you don't need to invoke a force to explain why the water flows into the bag. It's thought that, like diffusion, it's a spontaneous process," he says. "But, in fact, there is a force. It's complicated how it happens, but it turns out that the membrane – or the bag, in the familiar lab demonstration – exerts a force that pushes the water in."

Read more at: http://phys.org/n...html#jCp

Sounds way over simplified.
swordsman
1 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2013
Show me how the bag exerts a force. You are describing a pump.Show me what actuates the "pump". If it is too complicated to describe, then that gives me a clue as to the validity of the statement.

Diffusion often occurs for unlike pressures across a membrane. What produces the pressure? It is easy to show why and how it occurs for ions across a proper membrane. The ion channels of the heart are particularly outstanding. But the bag? How can it produce the force required for flow? Just a statement, not a proof has been offered.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2013
The gravity field (density gradient of vacuum around massive bodies) works like sorta osmotic membrane too: it allows the heavier/large particles come in, these lightweight ones (photons, neutrinos) out. After all, the string theory calls it (mem)branes.