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Interactions Among Soil Components:

Adsorption of Ions

3.1 Diffuse double layer
3.2 Cation exchange  
3.3 Cation Exchange Capacity
   3.3.1 Ranges of CEC  
3.3.2 Percentage Base Saturation
3.4 Anion Exchange Capacity

Ion adsorption and subsequent exchange are important processes that take place between soil colloidal particles (clays, organic matter, sesquioxides, and amorphous minerals) and various ions. Soil colloids serve very much as a modern bank. They are the sites within the soil where ions of essential plant nutrients are held and protected from excessive loss by leaching. Subsequently, the nutrients can be "withdrawn" from the colloidal "bank" sites and taken up by plant roots. In turn, these elements can be "deposited" or returned to the colloids through the addition of commercial fertilizers, lime, manures, and plant residues.

The charges associated with soil particles attract ions (simple and complex) of opposite charge. In temperate region soils, negative charges generally predominate on the soil particles (colloids), hence adsorbed cations are present in larger quantities than anions. In more highly weathered soils (e.g. in tropics) where 1:1 type clays and Fe/Al oxides are the most dominant type of colloids, anion adsorption and exchange is relatively more prominent.

See SoilWeb section for information on Charges on soil colloids

The relative strength of ion adsorption onto negatively charged soil colloids can be indicated by the lyotropic series. A portion of the lyotropic series is: Ca2+ > Mg2+ > K+ NH4+ > Na+

The mechanistic explanation for this sequence is provided by Coulomb's Law:

where F is force of attraction or repulsion between two ions (N), e1 and e2 are magnitudes (or amounts) of electrical charges (C = Coulomb) on an object (or ion), s is distance of charge separation (m), k is proportionality constant (8.9 109 in Nm2/C2), and K is dielectric constant.


3.1 Diffuse Double layer

A double layer (DL) exists where counterions are attracted to the charged surface of a particle and form a layer.  The ions are held in place by Coulombic forces.  A double layer forms under very dry conditions.

When water is added to a dry soil, the counterions are no longer held so tightly by the colloid and they begin to diffuse away from the surface.   Now the electrostatic attraction between the ions in solution and the colloidal surface is counteracted by diffusion.  This creates a diffuse double layer (DDL) where the charge on the particle is neutralized by a swarm of ions.  

Examples of Double Layer and Diffuse Double Layer

Source: Lesley Dampier

Thickness of the diffuse double layer will depend on:

  • Concentration of soil solution: High concentration of soil solution yields a thin DDL  

  • Valence of exchange ions: Monovalent ions yield a thick DDL

  • Size of an ion (or hydration radius): Strongly hydrated ions yield a thick DDL      

Particles with thick DDL tend to DISPERSE

Particles with thin DDL tend to FLOCCULATE

At Flocculate and Dispersed Organic Molecules

Click on the image to review - flocculated and dispersed organic molecules.

Image Source: Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, UBC

3.2 Cation exchange

Below is an example of a cation exchange where K and Na are the only cations present in a system with clay colloids:

Ion exchange reactions like the one above are:

  • Rapid

  • Reversible

  • Stoichiometric

If a few Na+ ions are added to the solution, the above equation goes to the right.  As the amount of Na+ ions increases, the probability that Na+ will displace K+ also increases.  If an enormous number of Na+ ions are added then there is a high probability that nearly all of the adsorbed K+ will be replaced.  This phenomenon is called the mass ion effect.


3.3 Cation Exchange Capacity

Exchangeable cations are those cations, which are readily displaced, by mass ion effect, from negatively charged colloids on which they are adsorbed.

Cation exchange capacity (CEC) refers to the number of exchangeable cations that soil solids can adsorb.  CEC is expressed as moles of positive charge adsorbed per unit mass, while an obsolete unit is meq/100 g. 


Milliequivalents of charge
per 100g of dry soil


Centimoles of charge
per kilogram of soil


3.3.1 Ranges of CEC


Approximate CEC  


3 – 15



Fe/Al oxides (sesquioxides)


Organic matter (humus)


Amorphous minerals



3.3.2 Percentage Base Saturation

Ca2+, Mg2+, K+, NH4+, and Na+ are called base cations or base-forming cations.  In soil, their salts undergo hydrolysis, which increases alkalinity by the release of OH- ions into soil solution.  When adsorbed by soil colloids in the place of H and Al ions, base cations reduce soil acidity and increase soil pH.  For example:

Base saturation (BS) refers to the fraction of cation exchange sites occupied by base cations and is usually expressed as a percentage.  Since Ca, Mg, K, and Na account for the majority of total exchangeable bases in most soils, these are sometimes the only ones measured for estimation of base saturation.  


3.4 Anion Exchange Capacity

Soils in which the predominant colloids are sesquioxides (oxides of Fe and Al) may have a net positive charge. This creates opportunities for anion adsorption and exchange.

A clay-size particle of hydrous aluminium oxide has a positive charge under acid conditions, as indicated in the following reaction and therefore contributes to the soil’s anion exchange capacity (AEC).  Materials like sesquioxides may acquire a pH-dependent charge.

At sufficiently high pH, sesquioxides can contribute to cation exchange capacity by acquiring extra hydroxyl groups.  However, most soils abundant in sesquioxides are naturally acidic and as such contribute to AEC.  


Approximate AEC




Gibbsite (Al)


Goethite (Fe)




Faculty of Land and Food Systems