Water potential

Water potential

Water potential is the potential energy of water per unit volume relative to pure water in reference conditions. Water potential quantifies the tendency of water to move from one area to another due to osmosis, gravity, mechanical pressure, or matrix effects such as surface tension. Water potential has proved especially useful in understanding water movement within plants, animals, and soil. Water potential is typically expressed in potential energy per unit volume and very often is represented by the Greek letter Ψ.

Water potential integrates a variety of different potential drivers of water movement, which may operate in the same or different directions. Within complex biological systems, it is common for many potential factors to be important. For example, the addition of solutes to water lowers the water's potential (makes it more negative), just as the increase in pressure increases its potential (makes it more positive). If possible, water will move from an area of higher water potential to an area that has a lower water potential. One very common example is water that contains a dissolved salt, like sea water or the solution within living cells. These solutions typically have negative water potentials, relative to the pure water reference. If there is no restriction on flow, water molecules will proceed from the locus of pure water to the more negative water potential of the solution; flow proceeds until the difference in solute potential is balanced by another force, for example, pressure potential.


Components of water potential

Many different factors may affect the total water potential, and the sum of these potentials determines the overall water potential and the direction of water flow:

Ψ = Ψ0 + Ψπ + Ψp + Ψs + Ψv + Ψm[1]


  • Ψ0 is the reference correction,
  • Ψπ is the solute potential,
  • Ψp is the pressure component,
  • Ψs is the gravimetric component,
  • Ψv is the potential due to humidity, and
  • Ψm is the potential due to matrix effects (e.g., fluid cohesion and surface tension.)

All of these factors are quantified as potential energies per unit volume, and different subsets of these terms may be used for particular applications (e.g., plants or soils). Different conditions are also defined as reference depending on the application: for example, in soils, the reference condition is typically defined as pure water at the soil surface.

Pressure Potential

Pressure potential is based on mechanical pressure, and is an important component of the total water potential within plant cells. Pressure potential increases as water enters a cell. As water passes through the cell wall and cell membrane, it increases the total amount of water present inside the cell, which exerts an outward pressure that is retained by the structural rigidity of the cell wall. By creating this pressure, the plant can maintain turgor, which allows the plant to keep its rigidity. Without turgor, plants lose structure and wilt.

The pressure potential in a living plant cell is usually positive. In plasmolysed cells, pressure potential is almost zero. Negative pressure potentials occur when water is pulled through an open system such as a plant xylem vessel. Withstanding negative pressure potentials (frequently called tension) is an important adaptation of xylem vessels.

Osmotic potential

Pure water is usually defined as having a osmotic potential (Ψπ) of zero, and in this case, solute potential can never be positive. The relationship of solute concentration (in molarity) to solute potential is given by the van 't Hoff equation:

Ψπ = − MiRT

where M is the concentration in molarity of the solute, i is the van 't Hoff factor, the ratio of amount of particles in solution to amount of formula units dissolved, R is the ideal gas constant, and T is the absolute temperature.

For example, when a solute is dissolved in water, water molecules are less likely to diffuse away via osmosis than when there is no solute. A solution will have a lower and hence more negative water potential than that of pure water. Furthermore, the more solute molecules present, the more negative the solute potential is.

Osmotic potential has important implication for many living organisms. If a living cell with a smaller solute concentration is surrounded by a more concentrated solution, the cell will tend to lose water to the more negative water potential (Ψw) of the surrounding environment. This is often the case for marine organisms living in sea water and halophytic plants growing in saline environments. In the case of a plant cell, the flow of water out of the cell may eventually cause the plasma membrane to pull away from the cell wall, leading to plasmolysis. It can be measured in plant cells using the Pressure bomb. Most plants, however, have the ability to increase solute inside the cell to drive the flow of water into the cell and maintain turgor.

This effect can be used to power an osmotic power plant.[2]

Matrix potential (Matric potential)

When water is in contact with solid particles (e.g., clay or sand particles within soil), adhesive intermolecular forces between the water and the solid can be large and important. The forces between the water molecules and the solid particles in combination with attraction among water molecules promote surface tension and the formation of menisci within the solid matrix. Force is then required to break these menisci. The magnitude of matrix potential depends on the distances between solid particles—the width of the menisci (see also capillary action)--and the chemical composition of the solid matrix. In many cases, matrix potential can be quite large and comparable to the other components of water potential discussed above.

It is worth noting that matrix potentials are very important for plant water relations. Strong (very negative) matrix potentials bind water to soil particles within very dry soils. Plants then create even more negative matrix potentials within tiny pores in the cell walls of their leaves to extract water from the soil and allow physiological activity to continue through dry periods. Germinating seeds have a very negative matric potential. This causes water uptake in even somewhat dry soils and hydrates the dry seed. In terms of negative water potential, creosote bushes can tolerate extreme drought stress by operating fully at -50 bars of water potential and have been found living down to -120 bars.


  1. ^ Taiz and Zeiger, Plant Physiology, Fourth Edition, Sinauer Associates, 2002
  2. ^ Statkraft to build world's first osmotic power plant

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