Ion Exchange Resins: What They Are and Their Applications

Definition: Ion Exchange Resins

Ion exchange resins are insoluble polymers formed by crosslinking of polystyrenes with different functional groups, which act as a medium for ion exchange reactions. 

The resin matrix contains ion-exchange sites, where the functional groups of positively or negatively charged ions are affixed to form a polymer network. This built network has the potential to attract the ions of opposite charges and facilitate the ion exchange process. The resins are normally present in the form of white or yellow porous microbeads, membranes, or granules. They have pores which provide a large surface area to trap and release the ions during ion exchange reactions.

Figure: An image of Ion Exchange Resin beads.

When immersed in a solution, the resins swell by absorbing the solution. However, the swelling extent depends on the polymeric structure of resins and the concentration of ions in the solution.

Most widely available and used types of resins are made of styrene-divinylbenzene copolymer (or polystyrene). However, there are also some others built from acrylonitrile or methyl acrylate (acrylic).

The ion exchange resins have diverse lab and industrial applications. For example, they can be used in water treatments of drinking water and wastewater, demineralization of impure water, and chromatography of a mixture of different components.

The chemical and physical properties of the ion exchange resins can be altered based on the specific lab applications. However, the two most common types of ion exchange resins are cation exchange resins and anion exchange resins.

In this article, we will briefly cover the types of ion exchange resins, their physical and chemical properties, and their diverse application in labs and industrial areas.

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Types of Ion Exchange Resins

Ion exchange resins contain electrically charged functional groups that are either sulfonic or carboxylic acid salts or quaternary ammonium salts. Based on their charges, the ion exchange materials are classified into two main groups: cation exchange resin and anion exchange resins. 

Cation Exchange Resins

Cation Exchange Resins contain negatively charged functional groups, which attract positively charged ions in solution. One of its applications is separating positive ions from contaminated water.

Cation Exchange Resins are also further classified into two sub-groups:

  • Strong acid cation (SAC) resins: They are made of polystyrene with a sulfonate functional group (SO3-) that is either charged with hydrogen ions (H+) or sodium ions (Na2+).
  • Weak acid cation (WAC) resins: They are composed of acrylic polymer with carboxylic acid groups as functional groups and have a high affinity for hydrogen ions. These are commonly used to remove alkalinity-associated cations. 

Anion Exchange Resins

Anion Exchange Resins contain positively charged functional groups, which attract negatively charged ions in solution. They contain amine as a functional group in their matrix. 

These also are used to purify water as well, by removing negatively charged contaminants. The two subcategories of anion resins are:

  • Strong base anion (SBA) resins: These resins consist of a polystyrene matrix that has been chloromethylated and then aminated with dimethylamine. They either yield chloride ions or hydroxide ions during the exchange reaction.

Weak base anion (WBA) resins: They are also composed of a polystyrene matrix. Their degree of ionization is regulated or controlled by the pH of the solution. Additionally, since they lack exchangeable ions, they act as acid absorbers for removing ions from strong mineral acids.

Figure: A schematic diagram of polystyrene structure and different types of Ion Exchange Resins.

Other than the cation and anion exchange resins there are some chelating resins. They consist of polystyrene with variant functional groups, including aminophosphonic, triethylammonium, and thiol, and almost always bind with cations. These resins are used to remove heavy metals and other materials from mixtures with a high degree of selectivity. 

Physical Properties of Ion Exchange Polymers

Different types of resins have different shapes, sizes, and structures. The process used for the synthesis of resins is called polymerization. And, the condition of polymerization of the backbone polymer determines the porosity and structure of the ion exchange resins. 

Based on their structure and size, the ion exchange materials are mainly of two types:

  • Microporous resins: Also known as gel resin. It consists of small, spherical, porous microbeads of radius measuring about 10 to15 Å in size. The resin beads may have a uniform particle size or a Gaussian size distribution, depending on their application and system design. This is the most widely used exchange system.
  • Macroporous resins: These resins have pores of larger size (for up to several hundred Å) compared to microporous resins. They are translucent (white or yellow-colored) in appearance and have greater stability, chemical efficiency, and chemical resistance.

Ion Exchange Resin Applications

Ion Exchange Resins have a range of applications, including biodiesel filtration, water softening, removing impurities from water and other solutions, and demineralization. Some of these applications are explained below.

Water Softening

Water softening is the process of removal of divalent cations from the water. Earlier zeolites were being used for the process. They could be regenerated by flowing concentrated NaCl solution through them to release CaCl2 and MgCl2. However, they are seldom used for water softening. 

Later on, ion exchange resins were developed that are of higher capacity and efficacy than zeolites. They have more affinity for magnesium and calcium ions than sodium ions. Therefore, it is necessary to force accumulated hardness ions off the resin beads with a solution of concentrated sodium chloride brine. The resins have many applications in commercial, residential, and industrial areas for water softening.

Water Purification

Ion exchange systems have the potential to purify solutions containing hazardous metal ions by replacing them with innocuous sodium and potassium ions. Thus, they are also applied in water treatment or purification, where activated charcoal (mixed in resins) is used to remove organic contaminants, such as chloride. 

Metal Separation

Ion exchange processes are used to extract, separate, and concentrate metals. For example, they are used to separate uranium from plutonium and other actinides. For many years, the ion exchange system was the only approach to separate rare-earth metals, such as actinides and lanthanides from each other.


Ion Exchange resins are an efficient approach to replacing acids, alkalis, and metal ion catalysts in a range of chemical reactions, including inversions, hydrolysis, hydration, and polymerization reactions.

It provides many advantages over other systems, which include:

  • Easy separation from reaction products
  • Repeated use or reuse
  • Fewer side reactions
  • Minimal equipment lining requirements

Column Chromatography

Ion exchange resins are also very commonly used in the lab technique of column chromatography. The resin is the stationary phase which is packed into columns of varying size, which then attracts charged ions present in cell lysate or other biological mixtures (the mobile phase). This is a very common technique used in drug & therapeutic development.

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Ion exchange resins are a polymer used in research and industrial areas as a medium for ion exchange processes. The resin contains pores that trap one specific ion and replace it with another.

Also, the resins contain specific charges due to the functional groups present in their matrices, and based on these charges they are categorized into two groups: cation exchange resins and anion exchange resins. Normally the resins consist of tiny, spherical, porous granules. However, their physical and chemical properties can be specified based on their applications. 

The ion exchange system is used in many areas, including demineralization, water softening and treatment, catalysis, purification, desiccation, and waste treatment. 

The lab applications become smoother and easier when they are combined with high-tech advanced instruments that allow working fast without compromising the quality of your results. But it’s not easier when you are short on capital.

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