The materials which are used for exchanging the ions between any two chemical compounds are called ion exchange materials. These materials have loosely held ions in them which can be exchanged easily with other compounds when they come in contact with it through solution. During such reactions, there are no changes in the physical properties of ion exchange materials. Ion exchange materials may be acids or bases which also consist of salts which cannot be dissolved easily. These acids or bases enable to exchange either positively charged ions (cation exchange) or negatively charged ions (anion exchange). A number of natural substances also possess ion exchange properties, such as proteins, soil particles, living cells, etc. These natural components play an important role in the maintaining balance in our ecosystem.
Ion exchange resins appear as light and porous solid substances and have the structure similar to beads. These resins are polymerized synthetically and have cations or anions to attract the ions of opposite charge, when a bed of solution flows through these resins through the cross links between them, and comes in close contact with the exchange sites. When these resins come in contact with any solution, they absorb it completely and swell up to form the bead like structure. The degree of swelling is completely dependent upon the average ion concentration and polymeric organization of the substance.
Ion exchange resins can be used for removal of undesirable ions from a solution. One of the greatest use of these resins in older days were to separate the rare earth metals, which occur naturally as mixtures and possess similar chemical properties.
These days ion exchange resins are used in the method of softening water. This method works on the principle of exchanging the ions responsible for the hardness of water with the less damaging ions present in some compounds. This process employs the use of zeolite or permutit which is hydrated sodium aluminium silicate, therefore, it is also known as zeolite/permutit process. When zeolite is added to hard water, the cations present in hard water are exchanged for sodium ions. As the reaction progresses, the zeolite gets exhausted because the whole of sodium zeolite gets converted to calcium or magnesium zeolite. It is regenerated for further use by treating with an aqueous sodium chloride solution.
This method of softening water is prevalent nowadays. The method is superior to zeolite method because they remove all types of unwanted cations as well as anions present in water. Synthetic resins are insoluble polymeric solids having giant hydrocarbon network containing reactive acidic or basic groups. Synthetic resins are of two types:
Cation exchange resins: cation exchange resins contain large organic molecule with sulphonic acid group and are water insoluble. The hard water is first passed through a bed of cation exchanger. First ion exchange resin gets changed to RNa after treating it with NaCl. Now, RNa resin exchanges sodium ions with calcium and magnesium ions present in hard water to make water soft.
Anion exchange resins: These resins contain giant hydrocarbon framework attached to basic groups such as amine group or hydroxide group. In this reaction the hydroxide ion exchanges for the anions in the water. Hydroxide ions are liberated which neutralize hydrogen ions set free in the cation exchange resin.
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