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5.11: Interacting with Water

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    We can get an idea of the hydrophilic, hydrophobic/hydroapathetic, and amphipathic nature of molecules through their behaviors when we try to dissolve them in water. Molecules like sugars (carbohydrates), alcohols, and most amino acids are primarily hydrophilic. They dissolve readily in water. Molecules like fats are highly hydrophobic (hydroapathetic), and they do not dissolve significantly in water. So why the difference? To answer this question we have to be clear what we mean when we say that a molecule is soluble in water. We will consider this from two perspectives. The first is what the solution looks like at the molecular level, the second is how the solution behaves over time. To begin we need to understand what water alone looks like. Because of its ability to make and donate multiple H-bond-type electrostatic interactions in a tetrahedral arrangement, water molecules form a dynamic three-dimensional intermolecular interaction network. In liquid water the H-bond-type electrostatic interactions between the molecules break and form rapidly.

    To insert a molecule A, known as a solute, into this network you have to break some of the H-bond-type electrostatic interactions between the water molecules, known as the solvent. If the A molecules can make H-bond-type electrostatic interactions with water molecules, that is, if it is hydrophilic, then there is little net effect on the free energy of the system. Such a molecule is soluble in water. So what determines how soluble the solute is. As a first order estimate, each solute molecule will need to have at least one layer of water molecules around it, otherwise it will be forced to interact with other solute molecules. If the number of these interacting solute molecules is large enough, the solute will no longer be in solution. In some cases, aggregates of solute molecule can, because they are small enough, remain suspended in the solution. This is a situation known as a colloid. While a solution consists of individual solute molecules surrounded by solvent molecules, a colloid consists of aggregates of solute molecules in a solvent. We might predict that all other things being equal (a unrealistic assumption), the larger the solute molecule the lower its solubility. You might be able to generate a similar rule for the size of particles in a colloid.

    Now we can turn to a conceptually trickier situation, the behavior of a hydrophobic solute molecule in water. Such a molecule cannot make H-bond-type electrostatic interactions with water, so when it is inserted into water the total number of H-bond-type electrostatic interactions in the system decreases - the energy of the system increases (remember, bond forming lowers potential energy). However, it turns out that much of this “enthalpy” change, conventionally indicated as ΔH, is compensated for by van der Waals interactions (that is, non-H-bond-type electrostatic interactions) between the molecules. Generally, the net enthalpic effect is minimal. Something else must be going on to explain the insolubility of such molecules.

    Turning to entropy: In a liquid water molecules will typically be found in a state that maximizes the number of H-bond-type electrostatic interactions present. And because these interactions have a distinct, roughly tetragonal geometry, their presence constrains the possible orientations of molecules with respect to one another. This constraint is captured when water freezes; it is the basis for ice crystal formation, why the density of water increases before freezing, and why ice floats in liquid water164. In the absence of the hydrophobic solute molecule there are many many equivalent ways that liquid water molecules can interact to produce these geometrically specified orientations. But the presence of a solute molecule that cannot form H-bond-type electrostatic interactions restricts this number to a much smaller number of configurations that result in maximizing H-bond formation between water molecules. The end result is that the water molecules become arranged in a limited number of ways around each solute molecule; they are in a more ordered, that is, a more improbable state, than they would be in the absence of solute. The end result is that there will be a decrease in entropy (indicated as ΔS), themeasure of the probability of a state. ΔS will be negative compared to arrangement of water molecules in the absence of the solute.

    How does this influence whether dissolving a molecule into water is thermodynamically favorable or unfavorable. It turns out that the interaction energy (ΔH) of placing most solutes into the solvent is near 0, so that it is the ΔS that makes the difference. Keeping in mind that ΔG = ΔH - TΔS, if ΔS is negative, then -T ΔS will be positive. The ΔG of a thermodynamically favorable reaction is, by definition, negative. This implies that the reaction:

    \[\text{water} + \text{solute} \rightleftharpoons\text{solution (water + solute)}\]

    will be thermodynamically unfavorable; the reaction will move to the left. That is, if we start with a solution, it will separate so that the solute is removed from the water. How does this happen? The solute molecules aggregate with one another. This reduces their effects on water, and so the ΔS for aggregation is positive. If the solute is oil, and we mix it into water, the oil will separate from the water, driven by the increase in entropy associated with minimizing solute-water interactions. This same basic process plays a critical influence on macromolecular structures.

    Questions to answer & to ponder:

    • Given what you know about water, why is ice less dense than liquid water?
    • Make of model relating the solubility of a molecule with a hydrophilic surface to the volume of the molecule?
    • Use your model to predict the effect on solubility if your molecule with a hydrophilic surface had a hydrophobic interior.
    • Under what conditions might entropic effects influence the interactions between two solute molecules?

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Michael W. Klymkowsky (University of Colorado Boulder) and Melanie M. Cooper (Michigan State University) with significant contributions by Emina Begovic & some editorial assistance of Rebecca Klymkowsky.

    This page titled 5.11: Interacting with Water is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael W. Klymkowsky and Melanie M. Cooper.

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