dialysis dīăl´ĭsĭs [key], in chemistry, transfer of solute (dissolved solids) across a semipermeable membrane. Strictly speaking, dialysis refers only to the transfer of the solute; transfer of the solvent is called osmosis . Dialysis is frequently used to separate different components of a solution. For example, a solution of starch and sodium chloride in water can be separated by placing the mixture in a vessel on one side of a semipermeable membrane and placing pure water on the other side. The smaller particles of sodium chloride (which dissolve in water to form sodium and chloride ions) will diffuse across the membrane; diffusion of the much larger starch particles (which are not truly in solution but are in colloidal suspension) is hindered and may be completely prevented. By continuously or periodically replacing the solvent with fresh solvent, almost all of the sodium chloride can be removed. The method was originated by Thomas Graham, who termed the substance that remained within the membrane a colloid and the substance that diffused a crystalloid.

An extension of the method makes possible the separation of mixed colloids by the use of a semipermeable membrane (usually synthetic) of known selectivity, i.e., one that will permit the diffusion of one colloid and hinder the diffusion of others. Mixed macromolecules, such as proteins, may be similarly separated. By the use of graded semipermeable membranes chosen to allow successively smaller molecules to pass, mixtures can be separated into components of graded ranges of molecular weight.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.