Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Dissociation and Ionization
Name: Tracy S.
Status: educator
Age: 40s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 10/27/2003

What is the difference between dissociation and ionization? I thought it was that ionization involved a reaction with water to produce ions whereas dissociation involved an ionic substance simply separating into the ions of which it is made.

Like so many terms, the terms "dissociation" and "ionization" are frequently used imprecisely, if the context is clear. "Ionization" refers to "dissociation" reactions in which the products are ions -- regardless of whether that occurs in water, or in the gas phase, or even the solid phase. The equilibrium constant for such reactions, unfortunately, is sometimes referred to as the "dissociation" constant, which strictly speaking is incorrect -- the proper term being "ionization" constant. The term "dissociation" also refers to reactions in which the products are neutral species. For example: HCl ----> H + Cl where "H" and "Cl" are atoms rather than ions. This is different than the ionization reaction:

HCL -----> H(+) + Cl(-).

Vince Calder

Dear Tracy,

Dissociation refers to a reaction where a molecule or substance breaks apart into smaller units. The units are not necessarily ions, although this is often the case.

Ionization generally refers to a reaction which forms ions from an uncharged species. It does not have to be a reaction with water. Ionization can sometimes be a particular kind of dissociation. Ionization can also be achieved by using a photon of sufficient energy to remove an electron (this is called photoionization).

So the gas-phase reaction

H2 (g) ----> 2 H (g) (R1)

is a dissociation, whereas the gas-phase reaction

H2(g) -----> H- (g) + H+ (g) (R2)

is an ionization. The process

H2(g) + photon ----> H2+ (g) + electron (R3)

is a photoionization.

Depending on the temperature and other factors, all three of these reactions are possible.

Looking at solution-phase reactions, if you bubble HCl (g) into water, you make aqueous HCl:

HCl (g) -----> H+ (aq) + Cl- (aq) (R4)

This looks like a dissociation. However, there is no such actual species as H+ in solution because H+ readily combines with H2O to form the hydronium ion H3O+:

H+ (aq) + H2O (l) -----> H3O+ (aq) (R5)

If you add reactions R4 and R5 together, you get the net outcome:

HCl (aq) + H2O (l) ---> H3O+ (aq) + Cl- (aq) (R6)

Reaction R6 appears to depict an ionization which is not a dissociation but is rather a reaction with water. However, something had to dissociate (R4) in order for that to happen, so...

Finally, an ionic dissociation reaction in water might be the dissolution of an ionic solid:

NaCl(s) -----> Na+(aq) + Cl- (aq)

This does not involve any subsequent reactions of the ions produced with water.

Hope this helps!

Best, Prof. Topper

Click here to return to the Chemistry Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory