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Cation exchange capacity

In soil science, cation exchange capacity (CEC) is the capacity of a soil for ion exchange of positively charged ions between the soil and the soil solution. A positively-charged ion, which has fewer electrons than protons, is known as a cation due to its attraction to cathodes. Cation exchange capacity is used as a measure of fertility, nutrient retention capacity, and the capacity to protect groundwater from cation contamination.

The quantity of positively charged ions (cations) that a clay mineral or similar material can accommodate on its negatively charged surface, expressed as milli-ion equivalent per 100 g, or more commonly as milliequivalent (meq) per 100 g. Clays are aluminosilicates in which some of the aluminum and silicon ions have been replaced by elements with different valence, or charge. For example, aluminum (Al3+) may be replaced by iron (Fe2+) or magnesium (Mg2+), leading to a net negative charge. This charge attracts cations when the clay is immersed in an electrolyte such as salty water and causes an electrical double layer. The cation-exchange capacity is often expressed in terms of its contribution per unit pore volume, Qv.

Base saturation

Closely related to cation exchange capacity is the base saturation, which is the fraction of exchangeable cations that are base cations (Ca, Mg, K and Na). The higher the amount of exchangeable base cations, the more acidity can be neutralised in the short time perspective. Thus, a site with high cation exchange capacity takes longer time to acidify (as well as to recover from an acidified status) than a site with a low cation exchange capacity (assuming similar base saturations). The long term resistance to acidification, however, is determined by the weathering rate.

Laboratory determination

There are two standardised International Soil Reference and Information Centre methods for determining CEC:

  • extraction with ammonium acetate; and
  • the silver-thiourea method (one-step centrifugal extraction).

There exists slightly conflicting ideas on which mechanisms to include in the term, "cation exchange", in soil chemistry. From a theoretical point of view, one should distinguish cation exchange from ligand exchange, and exchange of diffuse layer adsorbed cations. On the other hand, from a practical point of view, e.g. in forest and agricultural management, what is important is the soils' ability to replace one cation with another rather than the exact mechanism by which this replacement occurs. What is included in the term, "cation exchange", in soil science thus varies with the scientific context.


  • ISRIC (International Soil and Reference Information Centre)
  • Robert Lippert, Clemson University Extension Service
  • Cation Exchange Capacity
  • David B. Mengel, Department of Agronomy, Purdue University
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Cation_exchange_capacity". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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