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A colloid is a type of particle intermediate in size between a molecule and the type of particles we normally think of, which are visible to the naked eye. Colloidal particles are usually from 1 to 1,000 nanometers in diameter. When a colloid is placed in water, it forms a mixture which is similar in some ways to a solution, and similar in some ways to a suspension. Like a solution, the particles never settle to the bottom of the container. Like a suspension, the dispersion is cloudy.

The size of colloidal particles accounts for the cloudiness of a colloidal dispersion. A true solution, such as you might obtain by dissolving table salt in water, is transparent, and light will go through it with no trouble, even if the solution is colored. A colloidal dispersion, on the other hand, is cloudy. If it is held up to the light, at least some of the light scatters as it goes through the dispersion. This is because the light rays bounce off the larger particles in the colloid, and bounce away from your eye.

A colloidal dispersion does not ever settle to the bottom of the container. In this way, it is like a solution. The particles of the dispersion, though relatively large, are not large and heavy enough to sink. The solvent molecules support them for an indefinite time.

Everyone has seen what looks like dust particles moving about in a beam of sunlight. What you see is light reflected from colloid-sized particles, in motion because of tiny changes in air currents surrounding the suspended particles. This type of motion, called Brownian motion, is typical of colloids, even those in suspension in solution, where the motion is actually caused by bombardment of the colloidal particles by the molecules of the liquid. This constant motion helps to stabilize the suspension, so the particles do not settle.

Another commonly visible property of a colloidal dispersion is the Tyndall effect. If you shine a strong light through a translucent colloidal dispersion that will let at least some of the light through, the light beam becomes visible, like a column of light. This is because the large particles of the dispersed colloid scatter the light, and only the most direct beams make it through the medium.

Milk is the best known colloidal dispersion, and it shows all these properties. They can be seen by adding several drops of milk to a glass of water. Most of its cloudiness is due to fat particles that are colloidal in size, but there is also a significant amount of protein in it, and some of these are also in the colloidal size range.

See also Brownian motion.

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