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We stock quality Akulite Ion Exchange Resins

While many distributors have heard of or supply ion exchange (IX) resins, few have a real grasp on how the technology actually works. Whether you’re weighing potential treatment strategies, looking for ways to get the most out of your existing IX resins, or simply curious about IX chemistry, you may be asking “What is ion exchange resin and how does it work?”

Ion exchange is a reversible chemical reaction where dissolved ions are removed from solution and replaced with other ions of the same or similar electrical charge. Not a chemical reactant in and of itself, IX resin is instead a physical medium that facilitates ion exchange reactions. The resin itself is composed of organic polymers that form a network of hydrocarbons. Throughout the polymer matrix are ion exchange sites, where so-called “functional groups” of either positively-charged ions (cations) or negatively-charged ions (anions) are affixed to the polymer network. These functional groups readily attract ions of an opposing charge.


To fully understand how IX resins work, it is important to first understand the principles of the ion exchange reaction. Put simply, ion exchange is a reversible interchange of charged particles—or ions—with those of like charge. This occurs when ions present on an insoluble IX resin matrix effectively swap places with ions of a similar charge that are present in a surrounding solution.

The IX resin functions this way because of its functional groups, which are essentially fixed ions that are permanently bound within the polymer matrix of the resin. These charged ions will readily bond with ions of an opposing charge, which are delivered through the application of a counterion solution. These counterions will continue to bond with the functional groups until equilibrium is reached.

During an IX cycle, the solution to be treated would be added to the IX resin bed and allowed to flow through the beads. As the solution moves through the IX resin, the functional groups of the resin attract any counterions present in the solution. If the functional groups have a greater affinity for the new counterions than those already present, then the ions in solution will dislodge the existing ions and take their place, bonding with the functional groups through shared electrostatic attraction. In general, the greater the size and/or valency of an ion, the greater affinity it will have with ions of an opposite charge.

Let’s apply these concepts to a typical IX water softening system. In this example, the softening mechanism consists of a cation exchange resin where sulphonate anion (SO3–) functional groups are fixed to the IX resin matrix. A counterion solution containing sodium cations (Na+) is then applied to the resin. The Na+ are held to the fixed SO3– anions by electrostatic attraction, resulting in a net neutral charge in the resin. During an active IX cycle, a stream containing hardness ions (Ca2+ or Mg2+) is added to the cation exchange resin. Since the SO3– functional groups have a greater affinity for the hardness cations than for the Na+ ions, the hardness ions displace the Na+ ions, which then flow out of the IX unit as part of the treated stream. The hardness ions (Ca2+ or Mg2+), on the other hand, are retained by the IX resin.

What is resin regeneration?

Over time, contaminant ions bind with all available exchange sites in the IX resin. Once the resin is exhausted, it must be restored for further use through what is known as a regeneration cycle. During a regeneration cycle, the IX reaction is essentially reversed through the application of a concentrated regenerant solution. Depending upon the type of resin and the application at hand, the regenerant may be a salt, acid, or caustic solution. As the regeneration cycle proceeds, the IX resin releases contaminant ions, swapping them for ions present in the regenerant solution. The contaminant ions will exit the IX system as part of the regenerant effluent stream, and will need to be properly discharged. In most cases, the resin is rinsed to remove any residual regenerant prior to the next active IX cycle.

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