The key difference between electrolytes and nonelectrolytes is that electrolytes can produce ions when they are dissolved in water, while nonelectrolytes can’t produce ions.
We can categorize all compounds into two groups as electrolytes and nonelectrolytes depending on their ability to produce ions and conduct electricity. The process of passing a current through an electrolytic solution and forcing positive and negative ions to move towards their respective electrodes is called “electrolysis.” However, nonelectrolytes cannot take part in electrolysis processes.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are substances that produce ions. These compounds can produce ions when they are in the molten stage, or when they are dissolved in a solvent (water). Because of ions, electrolytes can conduct electricity. There are also solid-state electrolytes. Moreover, some gases like carbon dioxide produce ions (hydrogen and bicarbonate ions) when it dissolves in water.
There are two types of electrolytes: strong electrolytes and weak electrolytes. Strong electrolytes readily produce ions when they are soluble. For example, ionic compounds are strong electrolytes. Molten sodium chloride or aqueous NaCl solutions undergo complete dissociation (into Na+ and Cl– ions); thus they are good electricity conductors. Strong acids and bases are also good electrolytes. Weak electrolytes produce few ions when they are soluble in water. Furthermore, weak acids like acetic acid and weak bases are weak electrolytes.
Electrolytes in the Body
Electrolytes are present in our body too. We need them to maintain the balance inside cells and blood fluids in a healthy body. Electrolyte balance is crucial to maintain the osmotic balance and the blood pressure inside the body. Na+, K+, and Ca2+ are important in nerve impulse transmission and muscle contractions.
Various hormones in the body control electrolyte homeostasis. For example, aldosterone controls the Na+ amount. Calcitonin and parathormone hormones play a role to maintain the Ca2+ and PO43- balance. We can measure the electrolyte levels of the blood in order to identify certain electrolyte imbalances. Mostly, Na+ and K+ levels in blood and urine measurements are important to check kidney malfunctioning. The normal Na+ level in blood is 135 – 145 mmol/L while the normal K+ level is 3.5 – 5.0 mmol/L. Extreme levels of electrolytes in the body can be fatal. Electrolytes are also important in plant bodies. For example, electrolytes (K+) control the stomata opening and closing mechanisms by guard cells.
What are Nonelectrolytes?
The compounds that are not split into positive and negative ions when we dissolve them in solvents are nonelectrolytes. The molten stage of these compounds doesn’t generate ions either. Absence of ions in the medium makes them non-conductive. Mostly, compounds with nonpolar covalent bonds/ organic compounds belong to this group. For example, sucrose, glucose, ethane, etc.
What is the Difference Between Electrolytes and Nonelectrolytes?
The key difference between electrolytes and nonelectrolytes is that electrolytes can produce ions when they are dissolved in water while nonelectrolytes can’t produce ions. Ionic compounds and some compounds with polar bonds can be electrolytes. Compounds with nonpolar bonds are mostly nonelectrolytes. Furthermore, electrolytes in solutions can conduct electricity contrary to nonelectrolytes.
Summary – Electrolytes vs Nonelectrolytes
All compounds we know are either electrolytes or nonelectrolytes. The key difference between electrolytes and nonelectrolytes is that electrolytes can produce ions when they are dissolved in water, but nonelectrolytes can’t produce ions.
1. Helmenstine, Anne Marie. “Strong Electrolyte Definition and Examples.” ThoughtCo, Jul. 3, 2019, Available here.
2. Helmenstine, Anne Marie. “Chemistry Examples: Strong and Weak Electrolytes.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2019, Available here.
1. “Electrolytes-electric conductivity” By Elcap – Own work (CC0) via Commons Wikimedia