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Adsorption vs Absorption

Last Updated : 17 Aug, 2023
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Adsorption and Absorption are the two important processes of physical chemistry that help in various industrial processes to manufacture and purification of various chemical compounds. While the two terms sound almost similar there exists a significant difference between them. Adsorption is a surface phenomenon where the molecules of one substance get attached to the surface of another substance. On the other hand, absorption is a bulk phenomenon in which the molecule of one compound soaks inside the body of another compound. In this article, we will learn, the definitions, mechanisms, types, and differences between adsorption and absorption in detail.


In surface chemistry, the bulk phases encountered may be pure compounds or solutions. The interface is typically a few molecules thick, but its area is determined by the size of the bulk phase particles. Many important phenomena occur at interfaces, including corrosion, electrode processes, heterogeneous catalysis, dissolution, and crystallization. Both sorption processes, adsorption, and absorption, are sorption processes.

What is Adsorption?

The adhesion of molecules to the surface of a solid or liquid is referred to as adsorption. The molecules accumulate only at the surface and do not penetrate the adsorbing material’s bulk.

Adsorption has industrial applications such as air conditioning, adsorption chillers, synthetic resin, and water purification. Because there are no moving parts in an adsorption chiller, it is quiet. Adsorption is used in the pharmaceutical industry to extend neurological exposure to specific drugs or parts of drugs. The adsorption of molecules onto polymer surfaces is used in a variety of applications, including the development of nonstick coatings and biomedical devices.

There are two important components of Adsorption

  • Adsorbate
  • Adsorbent


Any substance that has adsorbed on the surface is referred to as an adsorbate. Charge transfer between the adsorbate and the metal occurs during the adsorption process, resulting in a dipole moment.


Adsorbents are insoluble materials with liquid coatings on their surfaces, such as capillaries and pores. When a material, such as a sponge, has the ability to contain a specific amount of liquid in small chambers, it is said to be adsorbent. Adsorbents are essential in chemical absorption, which occurs when a specific substance is trapped on the surface of a material.

Learn more about Adsorption.

Types of Adsorption

Adsorption is classified into two types based on the interaction forces between adsorbate and adsorbent.

  • Physical Adsorption
  • Chemical Adsorption

Physical Adsorption

Physical Adsorption, also known as physisorption, is an exothermic process. It has a low adsorption enthalpy. Physisorption normally involves the accumulation of gas on a solid surface due to weak forces known as Van der Waals forces. Because the adsorbent in the given surface does not show any particular gas, physisorption lacks specificity. It is reversible in the sense that the physisorption of a gas by a solid can be reversed by the physisorption of a gas by a solid.

Adsorption of gases such as hydrogen, nitrogen, and others on the surface of adsorbents such as charcoal is an example of physisorption. The surface area of the adsorbent influences physisorption. The extent of adsorption increases with increasing surface area. Finely divided metals and porous substances, for example, have a large surface area. As a result, they are regarded as good adsorbents. It also depends on the adsorbate’s composition.

Chemical Adsorption

Chemical Adsorption is another name for chemisorption. Adsorption occurs in adsorbed substances held together by chemical bonds in chemisorption. Chemisorption has a high specificity, which means that it occurs only when there is a chemical bonding between the adsorbent and the adsorbate. Chemisorption is irreversible, and it prefers high pressure.

Chemisorption has a high enthalpy of adsorption due to chemical bonding. At a higher temperature, the physisorption of a gas adsorbed at a lower temperature can be converted to chemisorption. Chemisorption is proportional to the surface area. Chemisorption increases as the surface area of the adsorbent increases. Adsorption of hydrogen, nitrogen, and other gases on the surface of adsorbents such as ferrous catalysts at high temperatures is an example of chemisorption.

Mechanism of Adsorption

It is an exothermic process, which means that energy is released during it. Enthalpy is the amount of heat that is released when one mole of adsorbate is adsorbed on an adsorbent. 

The enthalpy change is denoted as negative. The reason for this is that when adsorbate molecules are adsorbed on the surface, their freedom of movement is restricted, resulting in a decrease in entropy. Adsorption occurs spontaneously at constant temperature and pressure.

Examples of Adsorption

Adsorption is, at its core, a surface phenomenon. Because solids, particularly finely divided metals, have a large surface area, charcoal, silica gel, alumina gel, clay, colloids, metals in a finely divided state, and so on, act as good adsorbents. Here are a few examples:

  • When a gas such as O2, H2, CO, Cl2, NH3, or SO2 is placed in a closed vessel containing powdered charcoal, the pressure in the enclosed vessel decreases. Gas molecules congregate at the surface of the charcoal, implying that gases are adsorbed there.
  • When animal charcoal is added to a solution of an organic dye, say methylene blue, and the solution is thoroughly shaken, the filtrate turns colourless. As a result, the dye molecules accumulate on the surface of the charcoal, i.e. are adsorbed.
  • When an aqueous solution of raw sugar is passed over beds of animal charcoal, the colouring substances are adsorbed by the charcoal and the solution becomes colourless.
  • As water molecules are adsorbed on the surface of silica gel, the air becomes dry in its presence.

Learn more about the Uses and Applications of Adsorption.

What is Absorption?

Absorption is a physical or chemical effect or mechanism that occurs when electrons, molecules, or ions join a bulk phase – a solid or liquid substance.

In absorption, molecules are absorbed by the length rather than by the air. Adsorption is based on the surface where an adsorbate film forms, whereas absorption includes the entire volume of the absorbing agent. Absorption is the process by which a substance captures and transforms energy. The absorbent distributes the material it captures throughout the entire structure, whereas the adsorbent only distributes it on the surface. When atoms pass through or enter a bulky material, this is referred to as absorption. The molecules are completely dissolved or diffused in the absorbent during absorption, forming a solution. Once dissolved, the molecules are difficult to separate from the absorbent.

Absorption chillers for space cooling applications, ice production, cold storage, and turbine inlet cooling are common commercial applications of the absorption cycle. Absorption is a very good choice for consumers due to its high efficiency, environmentally friendly refrigerants, clean-burning fuels, and few moving parts that require maintenance. The absorption of a gas by a liquid is used in the hydrogenation of oils and the carbonation of beverages.

There are two components of Absorption:

  • Absorbate – The substance which gets absorbed is called absorbate.
  • Absorbent –  The substance which absorbs is called the absorbent.

When we use a paper towel to clean up split water, the paper absorbs the water, so the paper is the absorbent and water is the absorbate.

Read more about Absorption

Types of Absorption

There are two types of Absorption

  • Physical Absorption
  • Chemical Absorption

Physical Absorption

Physical Absorption is a non-reactive process where one component gets absorbed by another without any chemical bond such as when oxygen in the air dissolves in water. The process is determined by the liquid and gas, as well as physical properties such as solubility, temperature, and pressure.

Chemical Absorption

Chemical Absorption is a type of absorption which involves the formation of chemical bonds when one compound is absorbed by another compound. An example includes the purification of natural gas when it is made passed through Ethanolamine. In this process, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide are removed from the natural gas.

Difference between Adsorption and Absorption

The key differences between both adsorption and absorption are listed in the following table:



It is the assimilation of the molecular system throughout the bulk of the solid or liquid medium.

It is the accumulation of molecular species at the bottom instead of the liquid or solid.

It is a bulk phenomenon.

It is a surface phenomenon.

It is an endothermic process

It is an exothermic process

It is unaffected by temperature.

It is influenced by low temperature

It occurs at a uniform rate.

It increases steadily and reaches equilibrium.

It is constant throughout the medium.

The Concentration at the bottom of the adsorbent is different from that in bulk.

Because of the availability of space and the nature of the particle, substances are absorbed into an absorbent.

Substances are adsorbed onto the surface of an adsorbent because the adsorbent contains vacant spaces that encourage particle adhesion to the spaces.

The absorbed materials remain in the absorbent without interacting chemically with it.

The adsorbed materials are held to the adsorbent by Van der Wall’s forces or covalent bonds.

Based on their chemical interactions with the phases, absorbing materials can be separated into different phases.

Adsorbed materials can be separated by passing a new substance through the adsorbent’s surface and replacing the previously adsorbed material.

Absorption is used by a variety of living and non-living systems. Living systems, such as unicellular organisms, rely on the absorption phenomenon to obtain nutrients and water. Absorption is used for cold storage in non-living systems such as refrigerators.

Adsorption is used in a variety of living and non-living systems. Adsorption is a phenomenon that living systems, such as viruses, use to attach to bacteria or other organisms. Adsorption chromatography, for example, uses the principle of adsorption to separate mixtures.

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FAQs on Adsorption and Absorption

1. What is Desorption?

Desorption is the process by which the adsorbed substance is removed from the adsorbent’s surface.

2. What is Sorption Process?

Sorption is a physical and chemical process that occurs when a substance (typically a gas or liquid) accumulates within another phase or on the phase boundary of two phases. It is the opposite of desorption.

3. Differentiate between Adsorption and Absorption.

Adsorption compounds cling to the molecule’s surface, whereas absorption substances enter the liquid or solid’s bulk phase.

4. What are the different types of Absorption?

The two types of absorption processes are physical absorption and chemical absorption, depending on whether a chemical reaction occurs between the solute and the solvent.

5. Among Methane and Sulfur Dioxide Gases, which gas Adsorbs more on Charcoal and why?

As the critical temperature of sulfur dioxide is higher than that of methane, it adsorbs more.

6. What is the difference between Adsorbed and Absorbed?

When the molecules of a compound get attached to the surface of another compound then it is called adsorbed while if the compound get soaked into the body of another compound then the molecules of the compound are said to be absorbed.

7. Why Adsorption is always Exothermic?

The surface atoms of any compound have high energy. When any foreign molecule gets attached to the surface they release energy to become stable. Hence, Adsorption is always Exothermic.

8. What is Adsorbent vs Adsorbate?

The surface on which Adsorption occurs is called Adsorbent while the compound that gets adsorbed is called Adsorbate.

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