Adsorption vs Absorption – Differences and Examples

Adsorption vs Absorption
Adsorption occurs when particles stick to the surface of another phase, while absorption occurs when particles enter the bulk of the other phase.

Adsorption and absorption are two sorption processes through which one substance attaches to another. The main difference between them is that adsorption is the adhesion of particles onto a substance, while absorption involves mass transfer into another material. But, adsorption and absorption involve other differences as well.

Here is a comparison of adsorption and absorption, a closer look at their definitions, and examples of each process.

Comparing Adsorption vs Absorption

Usually, when people think about adsorption and absorption, they consider the mass transfer of liquid particles onto (adsorption) or into (absorption) solids. But, these processes can involve plasma, gases, liquids, or dissolved solids where the ions, atoms, or molecules are adsorbed or absorbed by liquids or solids. While both sorption processes share this similarity, they differ in several ways:

Accumulation of particles onto a substance surfaceAccumulation of particles throughout another substance
Surface phenomenonBulk phenomenon
Exothermic processEndothermic process
Favored by lowering temperatureNot affected by temperature
Rate steadily increases until it reaches equilibriumOccurs at a uniform rate
Surface concentration differs from internal concentrationConcentration eventually becomes the same throughout the material

Adsorption Definition and Examples

Adsorption occurs when ions, atoms, or molecules adhere to a surface. The substance adsorbed onto the surface is called the adsorbate. The substance with the surface is called the adsorbent. Adsorption is an exothermic process because energy is released when the adsorbate sticks to the adsorbent. The rate of the process depends largely on surface area and temperature. Low temperature promotes adsorption because particles with less thermal energy have less kinetic energy and are more likely to stick to surfaces from covalent bond formation, hydrogen bonding, or other intermolecular forces.

Examples of adsorption include:

  • Water adsorbing onto silica gel
  • Contaminants adsorbing onto activated charcoal
  • Particles adsorbing onto zeolites
  • Silver adhering to glass and forming a mirror surface
  • Non-stick coatings on pans
  • Adsorption chillers used with refrigerants
  • Viruses adsorb onto cells and surfaces

Uses of adsorption include water purification, cooling water for air conditioners, heterogeneous catalysts, surface treatments, and ion exchange columns.

Absorption Definition and Examples

Absorption occurs when ions, atoms, or molecules pass into a bulky material. These particles (the absorbate) diffuse or dissolve into the absorbent substance. A familiar example is a paper towel picking up water. Eventually, water evenly permeates the paper. Absorption occurs passively (diffusion) or actively (facilitated diffusion or active transport) and is an endothermic process. Absorption rate depends on several factors, include concentration, exposed surface area, and pressure.

Examples of absorption include:

  • A paper towel absorbing water
  • Hair absorbing water
  • Oxygen from air dissolving into water
  • Sodium hydroxide absorbing carbon dioxide from air
  • Cells absorb water and nutrients from their surroundings

Uses of absorption include spill clean-up, hydration, and digestion.

Note that there is another definition of absorption in science, referring to the interaction where matter absorbs energy from light.


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