The formation of a solution is an example of a spontaneous process, a process that occurs under specified conditions without energy from some external source.
When the strengths of the intermolecular forces of attraction between solute and solvent species in a solution are no different than those present in the separated components, the solution is formed with no accompanying energy change. Such a solution is called an ideal solution. A mixture of ideal gases (or gases such as helium and argon, which closely approach ideal behavior) is an example of an ideal solution since the entities comprising these gases experience no significant intermolecular attractions.
Ideal solutions may also form when structurally similar liquids are mixed. For example, mixtures of the alcohols methanol (CH3OH) and ethanol (C2H5OH) form ideal solutions, as do mixtures of the hydrocarbons pentane, C5H12, and hexane, C6H14. Unlike a mixture of gases, however, the components of these liquid-liquid solutions do, indeed, experience intermolecular attractive forces. But since the molecules of the two substances being mixed are structurally very similar, the attractive intermolecular forces between like and unlike molecules are essentially the same, and the dissolution process, therefore, does not entail any appreciable increase or decrease in energy. These examples illustrate how increased matter dispersal alone can provide the driving force required to cause the spontaneous formation of a solution. In some cases, however, the relative magnitudes of intermolecular forces of attraction between solute and solvent species may prevent dissolution.
Consider the example of an ionic compound dissolving in water. Formation of the solution requires the electrostatic forces between the cations and anions of the compound (solute–solute) to be overcome completely as attractive forces are established between these ions and water molecules (solute-solvent). Hydrogen bonding between a relatively small fraction of the water molecules must also be overcome to accommodate any dissolved solute. If the solute’s electrostatic forces are significantly greater than the solvation forces, the dissolution process is significantly endothermic and the compound may not dissolve to an appreciable extent. On the other hand, if the solvation forces are much stronger than the compound’s electrostatic forces, the dissolution is significantly exothermic and the compound may be highly soluble.
This text is adapted from Openstax, Chemistry 2e, Section 11.1: The Dissolution Process.