Polyelectrolytes are polymers whose repeating units bear an electrolyte group. Polycations and polyanions are polyelectrolytes. These groups dissociate in aqueous solutions (water), making the polymers charged. Polyelectrolyte properties are thus similar to both electrolytes (salts) and polymers (high molecular weight compounds) and are sometimes called polysalts. Like salts, their solutions are electrically conductive. Like polymers, their solutions are often viscous. Charged molecular chains, commonly present in soft matter systems, play a fundamental role in determining structure, stability and the interactions of various molecular assemblies. Theoretical approaches to describing their statistical properties differ profoundly from those of their electrically neutral counterparts, while technological and industrial fields exploit their unique properties. Many biological molecules are polyelectrolytes. For instance, polypeptides, glycosaminoglycans, and DNA are polyelectrolytes. Both natural and synthetic polyelectrolytes are used in a variety of industries.
Acids are classified as either weak or strong (and bases similarly may be either weak or strong). Similarly, polyelectrolytes can be divided into "weak" and "strong" types. A "strong" polyelectrolyte is one that dissociates completely in solution for most reasonable pH values. A "weak" polyelectrolyte, by contrast, has a dissociation constant (pKa or pKb) in the range of ~2 to ~10, meaning that it will be partially dissociated at intermediate pH. Thus, weak polyelectrolytes are not fully charged in solution, and moreover their fractional charge can be modified by changing the solution pH, counter-ion concentration, or ionic strength.
The physical properties of polyelectrolyte solutions are usually strongly affected by this degree of charging. Since the polyelectrolyte dissociation releases counter-ions, this necessarily affects the solution's ionic strength, and therefore the Debye length. This in turn affects other properties, such as electrical conductivity.
When solutions of two oppositely charged polymers (that is, a solution of polycation and one of polyanion) are mixed, a bulk complex (precipitate) is usually formed. This occurs because the oppositely-charged polymers attract one another and bind together.
Polyelectrolytes that bear both cationic and anionic repeat groups are called polyampholytes. The competition between the acid-base equilibria of these groups leads to additional complications in their physical behavior. These polymers usually only dissolve when there is sufficient added salt, which screens the interactions between oppositely charged segments. In case of amphoteric macroporous hydrogels action of concentrated salt solution does not lead to dissolution of polyampholyte material due to covalent cross-linking of macromolecules. Synthetic 3-D macroporous hydrogels shows the excellent ability to adsorb heavy-metal ions in a wide range of pH from extremely diluted aqueous solutions, which can be later used as an adsorbent for purification of salty water All proteins are polyampholytes, as some amino acids tend to be acidic, while others are basic.
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