Junction potentials bias measurements of ion exchange membrane permselectivity

16 October 2017, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


Ion exchange membranes (IEMs) are versatile materials relevant to a variety of water and waste treatment, energy production, and industrial separation processes. The defining characteristic of IEMs is their ability to selectively allow positive or negative ions to permeate, which is referred to as the permselectivity. Measured values of permselectivity that equal unity (corresponding to a perfectly-selective membrane) or exceed unity (theoretically impossible) have been reported for cation exchange membranes (CEMs). Such non-physical results call into question our ability to correctly measure this crucial membrane property. Since weighing errors, temperature, and measurement uncertainty have been shown to not explain these anomalous permselectivity results, we hypothesized that a possible explanation are junction potentials that occur at the tips
of reference electrodes. In this work, we tested this hypothesis by comparing permselectivity values obtained from bare Ag/AgCl wire electrodes (which have no junction) to values obtained from single-junction reference electrodes containing two different electrolytes. We show that permselectivity values obtained using reference electrodes with junctions were greater than unity for CEMs. By contrast, electrodes without junctions always produced permselectivities lower than unity. Electrodes with junctions also resulted in artificially low permselectivity values for AEMs compared to electrodes without junctions. Thus, we conclude that junctions in reference electrodes introduce two biases into results in the IEM literature: (i) permselectivity values larger than unity for CEMs, and (ii) lower permselectivity values for AEMs compared to those for CEMs. These biases can be avoided by using electrodes without a junction.


ion exchange membrane
junction potential
cation exchange membrane
anion exchange membrane
membrane potential
Reference Electrodes

Supplementary materials

Kingsbury et al Junction Potentials-SI


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