Definitions of Acidity and Basicity

For more than two-hundred years, chemists have struggled to come up with a way to describe acid-base reactions that is at the same time physically relevant, specific enough to be accurate, and general enough to include everything that should be considered an acid-base relationship.

Svante Arrhenius first defined acids to be proton (H+) donors and bases to be hydroxide ion (OH-) donors in aqueous solution. The Arrhenius model of acids and bases is summarized by the following two reactions:

Figure %: The Arrhenius model of acids and bases, where A = acid and B = base

At the time that Arrhenius proposed these definitions, water was virtually the only solvent used in chemistry, and nearly all known acids and bases contained protons (H+) and hydroxyl groups (OH), respectively. His definition was sufficient for the chemistry that was understood then. But progress in chemistry necessitated new definitions: it was discovered that ammonia behaves like a base, and HCl donates protons in non-aqueous solvents. The Bronsted-Lowry model of acids and bases serves that need by describing acids as proton donors and bases as proton acceptors. These definitions remove the role of solvent and allow bases like ammonia and fluoride ion to be classified as bases, so long as they bond to protons. The Bronsted-Lowry model implies that there is a relationship between acids and bases (acids transfer protons to bases) and allows us to define conjugate acids and conjugate bases, as seen in .

Figure %: The Bronsted model of acids and bases

You should note in the figure above that the conjugate acid of the base, BH+, acts as an acid in the reverse reaction by donating a proton to the conjugate base, A-, of the acid HA.

Despite the usefulness of the Bronsted-Lowry definition, there is an even more general definition of acids and bases provided by G. N. Lewis. The Lewis model of acids and bases proposes that an acid is an electron pair acceptor while a base is an electron pair donor. This model of acidity and basicity broadens the characterization of acid-base reactions to include reactions like the following which do not involve any hydrogen transfers. The nitrogen atom in ammonia donates an electron pair to complete the valence octet of boron.

Figure %: Example of a Lewis acid-base reaction

Because we are more interested now in describing terms and processes that involve proton transfers (pH, titration), we will focus on the Bronsted-Lowry definitions of acids and bases. We will leave consideration of the Lewis model of acids and bases for studying reactions in organic chemistry.