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 Dissolving Carbon Dioxide into Water
Name: Melissa
Status: other
Grade: 9-12
Country: Canada
Date: Fall 2009

Why and how does carbon dioxide dissolve into water, if it is a gas and non-polar? I thought likes dissolved likes.

Hi Melissa,

First, let us not forget that the statement "like dissolves like" is just a rule of thumb, a summary statement of a general trend, not a theory.

The idea that like dissolves like can be explained in this way: in order to form a solution, solute-solute interactions and some solvent-solvent interactions have to be broken - this requires energy. Then solute-solvent interactions have to form - this releases energy. A spontaneous process is usually consequent with a release of energy or an increase in disorganization (entropy). So, in order for there to be a resultant release in energy when a solute dissolves into a solvent, the energy required to break the solute-solute and solvent-solvent interactions have to be equal to or less than the energy released by forming the solute-solvent interactions. There usually is an increase in disorganization because two separate systems (solute and solvent) is less disorganized than a combined system (solute mixed with solvent). This usually happens when the solute-solute interactions are similar to the solvent-solvent interactions.

So think of water and oil. London Forces interaction (in the oil/solute) need to be broken - this requires very little energy since London Forces are weak. Hydrogen bonding forces need to broken (in water/solvent) and this require a lot of energy since hydrogen bonding is very strong. Then when the water-oil interaction is formed, only London Forces can form (limited by what the oil is capable of) - and this releases only a small amount of energy. So even though there could be an increase in disorganization if the oil and water mixed, the high requirement of energy to break the hydrogen bonding interactions is not compensated for by the increase in entropy and the weak interactions formed by an oil-water solution. Thus, solution formation does not happen.

In alcohol-water solutions, both have hydrogen bondings, and the energy required to break interactions is compensated for by the energy released by the formed interactions plus the increase in entropy . . . and we say like dissolve like.

Now on to your question.

1) If we imagine a gas (any gas) above a liquid (any liquid). The two systems remaining separate is a lower disorganization system than if the gas were to mix with the liquid. So there is a gain in entropy, higher disorganization if gases were to mix into liquids (whatever their intermolecular forces happen to be). So as a general statement, gases mix into liquids simply because there is an entropy gain.

2) If we look at gases - there is very little interaction between gas particles, so no solute-solute interaction need be broken. Some solvent-solvent interaction have to be broken in order to "insert" gases into the liquid. We should also expect a release of energy when gas-liquid interactions form. But as you've already noted, CO2 and H2O have different intermolecular forces and so the energy required to break hydrogen bondings is not compensated by the release of energy when London Forces are produced when CO2 interacts with water.

3) So we have to conclude that it is the gain in entropy that drives the solubility of gases in liquids. This is supported by the idea that when we increase the pressure of the gas above a liquid, more gas dissolves into the liquid. This is because when pressure increases for gases, this usually means that there are more gas particles per unit volume - and this is a more organized state than when those gas particles are farther apart. So, there is a higher gain in entropy when a gas dissolves into a liquid when the gas started from a higher organized state in the first place.

To summarize: gas solubility is a result of an increase in entropy and not so much from the energy loss as a result of solvation. So the rule, like dissolves like does not apply.

Greg (Roberto Gregorius)
Canisius College


The old "like dissolves like" rule does not really cover everything in the world of dissolving. Water will dissolve most molecular covalent (like carbon dioxide) substances to some extent even if they are not that polar. Of course the very polar substances tend to be more soluble, but not always, otherwise all ionic salts would be soluble in water and there are plenty that are not.

CO2 has no overall dipole due to symmetry but there is the possibility of fairly strong interactions with water due to each oxygen's two lone pairs. These can donate electron density to the positive hydrogens on the water molecule in an analogous way to how water molecules hydrogen bond to each other.

But the dissolving of CO2 in water is actually more than just dissolving, it forms an equilibrium with water molecules to form carbonic acid H2CO3 and this also has equilibria with hydrogen carbonate HCO3- and carbonate CO3(2-). These ions have strong attractions to water molecules through hydration spheres, the same as any soluble ion. It is really this set of equilibria that gives CO2 its solubility, the actual concentration of CO2(aq) is quite low.

It is worth bearing in mind that the solubility of CO2 is strongly affected by temperature and pressure, less soluble in high temperatures and low pressures. You can see this when you open a hot bottle of coke!

Best wishes.

Tom Collins

"Likes dissolves Likes" is just a rule of thumb, not a physical law. Carbon dioxide is especially soluble in water because it reacts with water:

CO2 + H2O ---> H2CO3 ----> (H+) + (HCO3[-1])

Vince Calder

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