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What Is a Solvent?

Daniel Liden
Updated May 17, 2024
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A solvent is a substance in which some other substance, called a solute, can dissolve to form a solution. Both the solvent and the solute can be solid, liquid, or gas, but liquid solvents and liquid or solid solutes are the most common and useful. Such substances are commonly used in industrial chemical processes, in a variety of experiments and processes in chemistry, and in some household chemical products. Solvents are not universal — different types of substances must be used to dissolve different solutes. The amount of solute that can dissolve in a given substance depends heavily on the temperature, volume or mass ratio, and various chemical properties of the substances involved.

The solubility, or tendency of a substances to dissolve in a given other substance, depends heavily on polarity, which is determined primarily by the distribution of electrons across a molecule. Chemists tend to follow a basic rule that is generally formulated as "like dissolves like." This means that a polar solute is likely to dissolve in a polar solvent while a non-polar solute is likely to dissolve in a non-polar solvent. Other properties, such as volume and temperature of the substances involved, are also important determinants of solubility, but polarity is usually the most important factor.

In both science and industry, it is important to determine the best conditions in which to dissolve a solute. Solutes and solvents can be quite expensive, particularly when used in large quantities, so choosing the best substance and temperature conditions for dissolving a solute can save a great deal of money. In some cases, this involves using an excess of solvent in order to ensure that all of the solute is dissolved, as undissolved solute is often wasted. In some cases, solvents can be reused after chemical processes, while in others, they are unusable and must be disposed.

Uses for solvents are quite numerous, even outside of industrial and scientific settings — many chemicals for cleaning or personal use, for instance, contain solvents. They are used in detergents, soaps, paint thinners, and a variety of other household chemicals, particularly those used for cleaning purposes. Some personal care products, such as nail polish remover, are also chemically based in solvents. Most of the solvents aside from water that are used in homes, industry, and laboratories are organic, meaning that they contain carbon and, in most cases, hydrogen. Some inorganic ones are also used, but these are almost exclusively used for research in chemistry.

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Daniel Liden
By Daniel Liden , Former Writer
Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to his work. With a diverse academic background, he crafts compelling content on complex subjects, showcasing his ability to effectively communicate intricate ideas. He is skilled at understanding and connecting with target audiences, making him a valuable contributor.

Discussion Comments

By anon315415 — On Jan 24, 2013

A good friend left a very small painting to me "An Italian young man." I can't remember the artist's name, but I love the art. I know that the artist made his own frames and during the 50's and 60's, his work sold very well.

When I got it after my friend died, it had darkened and has grown darker. I would love to figure how to clean it, or to find out who here in Asheville, N.C. might be able to clean it.

By kentuckycat — On Nov 08, 2011

I do not believe that there is a definition of a universal solvent and that any solvent has something that cannot be dissolved.

Despite that assumption it seems to me like any liquid, such as water, can be considered a solvent, because of the basic fact that a liquid and moisture will take away some of a lot of different substances.

Getting wet is something that most substances, like grime, cannot afford and when that occurs it will dissolve to a certain degree. I have also seen cola used as a solvent to remove things, but this could be just because it is a liquid and anything type of liquid could have worked.

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 07, 2011

@natthewc23 - I cannot lie I do find it very surprising that they do not have anything in this article that does not talk about water being a universal substance. I use water all the time to dissolve various unwanted things and to be honest when water is used in cleaning it is being used to dissolved certain things off of surfaces, so it should be considered a solvent.

I guess an argument could be made that something is not a solvent if there is something mixed in say when water is mixed in with soap to dissolve a rather nasty mess, but there are specific things that water can dissolve on its own and by definition this makes it a solvent.

By matthewc23 — On Nov 07, 2011

@JimmyT _ I have to completely agree with you. I have always been under the impression that water is the universal solvent and although it is restricted in what it can dissolve, ever single solvent available has something that it cannot dissolve.

Water fits the definition of being a solvent perfectly in that it is used to dissolve things. Like you said it can dissolve dried glue off of the hands as well as certain sticky types of substances. I feel like water is probably the most common type of solvent and is even called the universal solvent. I guess this article has to disagree for some reason so there may be something else besides the provided definition that determines whether or not something is a solvent.

By JimmyT — On Nov 06, 2011

So this is my one and only question after reading this article, water is not a solvent?

I feel like water is considered a solvent because it can dissolve several different types of things such as sticky substances and dried glue on the hands. I just find it to be fairly amazing that the most simple available source in the world, water, is not considered to be a solvent by reading this article and how it cannot be considered one.

Daniel Liden

Daniel Liden

Former Writer

Daniel Liden, a talented writer with a passion for cutting-edge topics and data analysis, brings a unique perspective to...
Learn more
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