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Ion Transport

  • Major constituents of cells
  • important functions
  • charge is substrate for neural communication
  • every charged particle (in principle) affects every other ion
    • more complicated than other mechanisms


2 distinct mechanisms of diffusion and drift


Given by Fick's law \phi_n = -D_n\frac{\partial c_n}{\partial x}


  • Effect of electrical forces on montion of charged particles.
  • Electric Field (vector field) E(x,t)
  • force on particle fp = QE(x,t) = zneE(x,t) where zn is valence and e\approx 1.6\cdot 10^{-19} C.
  • Motions of small particles in water are viscosity dominated (Stokes 1855)
Forces Size scale Time scale
inertial (F=ma) radius3 acceleration
viscosity radius velocity

v\propto f_p = u_p f_p = u_n f where up is mechanical mobility in units of velocity/force, un is the molar mechanical mobility and f becomes the force on a mole of particle.

For charged particles: v = unzneNAE(x,t) = unznFE(x,t) (F = eNA which is Faradya's number) = charge/mole about 96500 C/mol.

Dn = unRT: Einstein's relation

Flux due to drift: \phi_n = \lim_{A\rightarrow 0 ; \Delta t\rightarrow 0}\frac{c_n(x,t)A\Delta x}{A\Delta t} = vc_n(x,t)

\phi_n = c_n(x,t)u_nz_nFE(x,t) = -c_nu_nz_nF\frac{\partial\psi}{\partial x} where E=-\frac{\partial\psi}{\partial x} (electric field depends on the potential gradient)

The flux of ions is the current density given by Jn = znFφn This is in units of current/area and is easier to measure than flux.

Combined transport

Combining diffusion and drift to get Nernst-Planck Equation:

J_n = -z_nFD_n\frac{\partial c_n}{\partial x}-u_nz_n^2F^2c_n\frac{\partial\psi}{\partial x}

Note that this is really just a combination of Fick's and Ohm's Laws.

Continuity: (needed to solve equations just like in other transport mechanisms)

\frac{\partial\phi_n}{\partial x} = -\frac{\partial c_n}{\partial t} or equivalently

\frac{\partial J_n}{\partial x} = -z_nF\frac{\partial c_n}{\partial t}

Unlike diffusion, also need one more equation for ψ but this electric potential depends on all particles.

From Gauss' law: \frac{\partial E}{\partial x} = \frac{1}{\epsilon}\rho(x,t) = \frac{1}{\epsilon}\sum_n z_nFc_n(x,t) where ε is the permitivity and ρ is the charge density.

This leads to Poisson's Equation \frac{\partial^2 \psi}{\partial x^2} = -\frac{1}{\epsilon}\sum_n z_nFc_n(x,t)


  • In a solution with some charge, after some time, all charges go to the edges away from each other.
  • τr is the relaxation time and is on the order of nanoseconds for physiological salines
  • Similarly, in space, a region around the charge is formed that negates the charge. This is known as the Debye layer and has a thickness of around a nanometer.
  • Thus for times much greater than the relaxation time and distances much greater than the Debye distance, we can assume electroneutrality of the solution.
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