The stationary phase allows components in the mobile phase to bind to it reversibly by various intermolecular forces.
The mobile phase may be a gas or a liquid and serves to carry the component molecules through the chromatographic system.
Let’s consider we want to separate two solids, A and B, by chromatography.
Both A and B are able to interact with the mobile phase which is carrying them along and also with the stationary phase.
An equilibrium is set up:
[Am] (reversible reaction arrow) [As]
Where [Am] is the concentration of A in the mobile phase
And [As] is the concentration of A bound to the stationary phase
DA = [As] / [Am]
DA is called the distribution coefficient for A. You don’t need to know this, but we can see from the expression for DA that the bigger the size of DA, then the greater the affinity of A for the stationary phase.
What about B? The distribution coefficient for B has exactly the same form. DB = [Bs] / [Bm]
It is obvious that if DB is much larger than DA then B binds more strongly to the stationary phase than A does.
Therefore B will move more slowly than A.
TLC is very similar to paper chromatography except that the stationary phase is not paper, but alumina sprayed onto a piece of glass. TLC is very useful as a preparation for further chromatography to separate products of a reaction for example. We can quickly calculate Rf values for compounds in a particular solvent by dividing the distance moved by each spot by the distance moved by the solvent front.