Acids and Bases

See the differences between acids and bases, and find out why they act the way they do.

It is widely known that lemons taste sour due to their acid content, soil needs the optimum pH level for plants to grow properly and acid rain can wipe out entire ecosystems. But what really makes one thing acidic and the other one basic (alkaline)? Why can they be so corrosive? And why does litmus paper turn different colours when dipped in acid or a base?
Acids and bases can be defined in terms of their concentration of hydrogen ions. Normally an atom of hydrogen consists of one proton and one electron giving it a balanced electrical charge – protons being positively charged and electrons being negatively charged. Take away the electron and you are left with an ion of hydrogen, or a single proton, or ‘H+’, as it is often written. The thing about ions is they are very reactive, as they no longer have a balanced charge. They are constantly seeking ions of the opposite charge – an atom or molecule with an unequal number of electrons than protons, with which to react.
A strong acid has a high concentration of H+ ions and is defined by its ability to ‘donate’ hydrogen ions to a solution, whereas a base, also know as an alkali, has a much lower concentration of H+ ions and is defined by its ability to ‘accept’ hydrogen ions in a solution. Therefore, acids mixed with bases become less acidic and bases mixed with acids become less basic, or less alkaline.
Certain concentrated bases, like some concentrated acids, can attack living tissue and cause severe burns due to the ions reacting with the skin. However, the process of bases reacting with the skin, and other materials, is different to that of acids. That’s why we call some concentrated acids ‘corrosive’, whereas reactive concentrated bases are ‘caustic’.

The power of hydrogen
The letters pH stand for ‘power of hydrogen’, as the scale refers to the concentration of hydrogen (H+) ions in the solution. It measures the acidity or basicity of a solution, with pH values ranging from 0-14, 0 being really acidic and 14 being really basic. A substance in the middle of the scale with a pH of 7 is classed as neutral, as it contains equal numbers of oppositely charged ions.

A compound which ‘donates’ hydrogen ions when placed in an aqueous solution. The higher the concentration of hydrogen ions released, the stronger the acid.

acidsFind pH with litmus tests
We can test the acidity or alkalinity of a substance using litmus paper. Litmus paper is that which has been treated with a mixture of 10-15 natural dyes obtained from lichens. The dyes work as indicators, whereby upon exposure to acids (a pH less than 7) the paper turns red and upon exposure to bases (a pH more than 7) the paper turns blue. When the pH is neutral (pH equal to 7), the dyes cause the paper to turn purple.
Red cabbage juice can also be used to distinguish between acids and bases, as it contains a natural pH indicator called ‘flavin’. Upon exposure to acid, flavin turns a red colour, neutral solutions appear a purple colour and basic solutions result in a greenish-yellow colour.

A neutralisation reaction is the combination of an acid and base that results in a salt and, usually, water. In strong bases and acids, neutralisation is the result of the exchange of hydrogen and hydroxide ions, H+ and H- respectively, which produces water. With weak acids and bases, neutralisation is simply the transfer of protons from an acid to a base. The production of water, with a neutral pH of 7, indicates the neutralisation of the acid and base, while the resultant salt will often have a pH that is also neutral. Neutralisation has a variety of practical uses. For example, as most plants grow best at neutral pH7, acidic or alkaline soil can be treated with chemicals to change its pH. In the case of acidic soil this is often calcium carbonate (chalk) or calcium oxide (quicklime). Another example is the human stomach, which contains hydrochloric acid. However, too much can lead to indigestion, so the acid can be neutralised with a base such as an indigestion tablet.


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