Pure substances and mixtures

Different types of chemical substance

Substances exist as elements, compounds or mixtures:

  • An element contains atoms with the same atomic number.
  • A compound contains two or more elements chemically joined together.
  • A mixture contains two or more different substances that are not chemically joined together. The different substances in a mixture can be elements and/or compounds.

The table shows some examples:

Table with examples and diagrams of a pure element (oxygen), pure compound (carbon dioxide), mixture of elements (oxygen and helium), mixture of compounds (alcohol and water), mixture of elements and compounds (air)

The meaning of pure

The word pure is used in chemistry in a different way from its everyday meaning. For example, shops sell cartons labelled as ‘pure’ orange juice. The label means that the contents are just orange juice, with no other substances added. However, the juice is not pure in the chemical sense, because it contains different substances mixed together. In chemistry:

  • a pure substance consists only of one element or one compound
  • a mixture consists of two or more different substances, not chemically joined together

Distinguishing between pure substances and mixtures

Pure substances have a sharp melting point but mixtures melt over a range of temperatures. This difference is most easily seen when the temperature of a liquid is measured as it cools and freezes. The graph shows the cooling curve for a sample of a compound called salol.

A cooling curve for salolThe temperature stays the same when a pure substance changes state

The horizontal part of the graph shows that the salol has a sharp melting point, so it is pure. Impure salol (a mixture of salol and other substances) would produce a gradual fall in temperature as it freezes.

Graph of the freezing and melting range of a sunstance, between 40 c and 50 c.The temperature changes slightly as an impure substance changes state