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This article is about diffusion as studied in biology and physics; for the diffusion of ideas and cultures, see anthropological diffusion.

In physics, diffusion refers to the spontaneous spreading of something such as particles, heat, or momentum. The phenomenon is readily observed when a drop of colored water is added to clear water, or when smoke from a chimney dissipates into the air. In these cases, diffusion is the result of molecular motion rather than chemical reactions or the application of external force. In cell biology, diffusion is described as a form of "passive transport", by which substances cross membranes.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Types of Diffusion
3 See also


Diffusion is one kind of transport phenomenon: compare it, for example, to radiation. All diffusion can be modelled quantitatively using the diffusion equation, the solutions of which go by different names depending on the physical situation. Steady state matter diffusion is governed by Fick's First Law. Steady-state thermal diffusion is governed by Fourier's Law. Diffusion of electrons in an electrical field is essentially Ohm's law. In each, a flux (of atoms or energy or electrons) is equal to a physical property (diffusivity or thermal conductivity or electrical conductivity) multiplied by a gradient (concentration gradient or thermal gradient or electric field). The generic diffusion equation is time dependent (i.e. also applies to non-steady-state situations).

In each case, there is only a noticeable diffusion if there is a gradient: for example in thermal diffusion, if the temperature is constant, heat will move as quickly in one direction as in the other, producing no change.

Types of Diffusion

Atomic Diffusion

This is the process whereby the random thermally activated hopping of
atoms in a solid results in the net transport of atoms. For example, helium atoms inside a balloon can diffuse through the wall of the balloon and escape, resulting in the balloon slowly deflating. Other air molecules (e.g. oxygen, nitrogen) have lower mobilities and thus diffuse more slowly through the balloon wall. There is a concentration gradient in the balloon wall because the balloon was filled up with helium, and thus there is plenty of helium on the inside, but there is relatively little helium on the outside, because helium is not a major component of air. The rate of transport is governed by the diffusivity and the concentration gradient.

See also Kirkendall effect

Brownian Motion

Brownian motion occurs when discrete particles diffuse in a liquid medium. The thermal activation is provided by the thermal vibrations in the liquid. Because the particles are in a fluid, they are constantly moving in more or less random directions.

Electron Diffusion

Electric current flows by diffusion in most conductorss. Charge carriers (usually electrons) move randomly in the absence of an electric field. When an electric field is applied, carriers drift preferentially in the field, causing a net current. The rate of transport is governed by the electrical conductivity of the conductor and the electric field.

Facilitated Diffusion

In cell biology, facilitated diffusion is a process of passive transport; via which polar molecules diffuse across membraness, with the "help" of transport proteins.

Momentum Diffusion

In the case of laminar flow of a liquid flowing past a solid surface, momentum diffuses across the boundary layer near the surface. The gradient in this case is between the liquid in contact with the surface (which isn't moving at all and has zero momentum) and the liquid far away from the wall, which has momentum proportional to the speed at which it is flowing. The rate of transport is governed by the viscosity of the fluid and the momentum gradient.


Osmosis is the diffusion of water across a membrane.

Reverse Diffusion

In general, diffusion results in transport down the gradient -- i.e. things move from regions of high concentration to low concentration. However, this is not always the case: during a phase separation, material can diffuse towards regions of higher concentration. This is referred to as reverse diffusion.

Thermal Diffusion

When heat travels through a material with a thermal gradient (for example, heat traveling through the wall of a coffee mug), the rate of transport is governed by the thermal conductivity and the temperature gradient.

See also

{| width = 100% |Active transport |Apparatus for demonstrating osmosis |Barotropic vorticity equation |- |Bipolar junction transistor |Brownian motion |Cell membrane |- |Circulatory system |Effusion |Electrochemical potential |- |Emulsion polymerization |Ficks law of diffusion |Fokker-Planck equation |- |Gel permeation chromatography |Hydrothermal circulation |Isotope separation |- |Kirkendall effect |Laminar flow |Liposomes |- |List of biochemistry topics |List of biology topics |List of physics topics |- |Mass transfer |Materials science |Mechanical ventilation |- |NaKATPase |Nervous system |Neurotransmitter |- |Nitric oxide |Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine |Osmosis |- |Osmotic |Quorum sensing |Respiration |- |Reverse osmosis |Second messenger |Semi permeable membrane |- |SI derived unit |Sintering |Synapse |- |Transport phenomena |}