Solvents are substances used to dissolve, extract, or suspend other substances to form a solution. Usually liquid, solvents can also exist in the gas or solid form. The most common solvent is water, aptly called the “universal solvent” as it dissolves more substances than any other solvent.

Solvents are extensively used:

  • As a medium for organic reactions and analytical separations in chemistry labs
  • In the manufacturing of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, personal care items, textiles, paints, pesticides, and other products

Solvents are generally classified as polar and nonpolar. A parameter called the dielectric constant is an indicator of solvent polarity or its ability to stabilize charges. A higher dielectric constant means that the substance is more polar.

By this measure, water (which dissolves ionic or charged compounds such as inorganic salts) is a most polar solvent, having a dielectric constant of 78 at 25oC. In general, solvents with dielectric constants greater than 15 are considered polar. These solvents include, among others, acetone, acetonitrile, dimethylformamide (DMF), dimelthylsulfoxide (DMSO), ethanol, isopropanol, and methanol.

The least polar (or most nonpolar) solvents are the alkanes: pentane, hexane, heptane (dielectric constant less than two), and the aromatics: benzene, toluene, and xylene (with dielectric constants less than three). Other common nonpolar solvents (with dielectric constants less than 15) include acetic acid, chloroform, diethyl ether, ethyl acetate, methylene chloride, and pyridine. “Like dissolves like” is a good rule of thumb, i.e., polar solvents dissolve polar compounds.

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