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Osmosis and Dialysis—Diffusion Across Membranes

Osmosis and Dialysis—Diffusion across Membranes

Some of the most interesting examples of diffusion occur through barriers that affect the rates of diffusion. For example, when you soak a swollen ankle in Epsom salt, water diffuses through your skin. Many substances regularly move through cell membranes; oxygen moves in, carbon dioxide moves out, nutrients go in, and wastes go out, for example. Because membranes are thin structures (typically \(6\text{.}5×{\text{10}}^{-9}\) to \(\text{10}×{\text{10}}^{-9}\) m across) diffusion rates through them can be high. Diffusion through membranes is an important method of transport.

Membranes are generally selectively permeable, or semipermeable. (See the figure below.) One type of semipermeable membrane has small pores that allow only small molecules to pass through. In other types of membranes, the molecules may actually dissolve in the membrane or react with molecules in the membrane while moving across. Membrane function, in fact, is the subject of much current research, involving not only physiology but also chemistry and physics.

Part a of the figure shows a semi permeable membrane shown as small rectangular sections in a vertical line, separated by small gaps called as pores. Molecules are shown in all shapes on both the sides of the membranes. Some molecules are shown to diffuse through the pores. Part b of the diagram shows molecules in the form of small spheres packed on both sides of a single vertical rectangular membrane. Some molecules are shown to dissolve in this membrane and diffuse across it.

(a) A semipermeable membrane with small pores that allow only small molecules to pass through. (b) Certain molecules dissolve in this membrane and diffuse across it.

Osmosis is the transport of water through a semipermeable membrane from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration. Osmosis is driven by the imbalance in water concentration. For example, water is more concentrated in your body than in Epsom salt. When you soak a swollen ankle in Epsom salt, the water moves out of your body into the lower-concentration region in the salt. Similarly, dialysis is the transport of any other molecule through a semipermeable membrane due to its concentration difference. Both osmosis and dialysis are used by the kidneys to cleanse the blood.

Osmosis can create a substantial pressure. Consider what happens if osmosis continues for some time, as illustrated in the figure below. Water moves by osmosis from the left into the region on the right, where it is less concentrated, causing the solution on the right to rise. This movement will continue until the pressure \(\rho \text{gh}\) created by the extra height of fluid on the right is large enough to stop further osmosis. This pressure is called a back pressure. The back pressure \(\rho \text{gh}\) that stops osmosis is also called the relative osmotic pressure if neither solution is pure water, and it is called the osmotic pressure if one solution is pure water.

Osmotic pressure can be large, depending on the size of the concentration difference. For example, if pure water and sea water are separated by a semipermeable membrane that passes no salt, osmotic pressure will be 25.9 atm. This value means that water will diffuse through the membrane until the salt water surface rises 268 m above the pure-water surface! One example of pressure created by osmosis is turgor in plants (many wilt when too dry). Turgor describes the condition of a plant in which the fluid in a cell exerts a pressure against the cell wall. This pressure gives the plant support. Dialysis can similarly cause substantial pressures.

Part a of the figure shows a vessel having two different concentrations of sugar in water separated by a semipermeable membrane that passes water but not sugar molecules. The sugar molecules are shown as small red color spheres and water molecules as still smaller blue colored spheres. The right side of the solution shows more of sugar molecules represented as more number of red spheres. The osmosis of water molecules is shown toward right. Part b shows the second stage for figure on part a. The osmosis of water is shown toward right. The height of fluid on right is shown as h above the fluid on the left. The back pressure of water is shown toward left.

(a) Two sugar-water solutions of different concentrations, separated by a semipermeable membrane that passes water but not sugar. Osmosis will be to the right, since water is less concentrated there. (b) The fluid level rises until the back pressure \(\rho \text{gh}\) equals the relative osmotic pressure; then, the net transfer of water is zero.

Reverse osmosis and reverse dialysis (also called filtration) are processes that occur when back pressure is sufficient to reverse the normal direction of substances through membranes. Back pressure can be created naturally as on the right side of the figure below. (A piston can also create this pressure.) Reverse osmosis can be used to desalinate water by simply forcing it through a membrane that will not pass salt. Similarly, reverse dialysis can be used to filter out any substance that a given membrane will not pass.

One further example of the movement of substances through membranes deserves mention. We sometimes find that substances pass in the direction opposite to what we expect. Cypress tree roots, for example, extract pure water from salt water, although osmosis would move it in the opposite direction. This is not reverse osmosis, because there is no back pressure to cause it. What is happening is called active transport, a process in which a living membrane expends energy to move substances across it.

Many living membranes move water and other substances by active transport. The kidneys, for example, not only use osmosis and dialysis—they also employ significant active transport to move substances into and out of blood. In fact, it is estimated that at least 25% of the body’s energy is expended on active transport of substances at the cellular level. The study of active transport carries us into the realms of microbiology, biophysics, and biochemistry and it is a fascinating application of the laws of nature to living structures.

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