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Development of the idea of Acid

Substances which produce a sour taste are well known to man.

They are found in food (e.g. unripe fruits, vinegar, lactic acid in sour milk), drugs
(e.g. aspirin, ponstan), chemicals (e.g. HCl, H2SO4) & in nature – the acid rain.
These substances were characterized by the alchemists in the middle ages about 500
years ago. They were classified as acids by their common properties e.g. sour taste
rather than by their chemical composition. Indeed the word acid originates from the
Latin, acidus, meaning sour or the closely related Latin acetum, meaning vinegar.

By the mid 17th century, the properties of acid were recognized as

1. taste sour
2. cause certain organic dyes to change colour (e.g., litmus turns from blue to
3. corrosive action
4. ability to precipitate sulphur from liver of sulphur ( i.e. potassium sulphide)
5. ability to neutralize alkali

Towards the 18th century, Lavoisier hypothesized the Oxygen Theory of Acid. This
was an unjustified generalization from the fact that many acids can be produced by
combination of non-metallic oxide with water e.g. H2SO3, H2CO3 and so contain
oxygen. The name oxygen is, in fact, from oxus(sour) and gennao(to produce).Davy’s
proof that chlorine is an element containing no oxygen and that hydrochloric acid is
produced by combination of hydrogen and chlorine finally disproved the oxygen

In early 19th century, it was gradually recognized that the element essential to an acid
is hydrogen. But this hydrogen in the compound must be capable of being replaced
by a metal with the formation of salt e.g.

Zn + H2SO4  ZnSO4 + H2 (direct displacement)

CuO + H2SO4  CuSO4 + H2O (indirect displacement)

At this time acid could be defined as a compound which turns blue litmus to red
and contains hydrogen which can be replaced directly or indirectly with a metal

By 1880, with the introduction of the ionic ideas, replaceable hydrogen is recognized
as hydrogen which is capable of ionizing to H+.
So acid could be defined as a compound which, in water yields hydrogen ions,

HCl === H+ + Cl-

H2SO4 === 2H+ + SO4—

Hence from the Ionic Theory point of view, acid can be regarded as a compound
which has a tendency to lose one or more proton (i.e. H+) per molecule. Conversely a
base can be regarded as a substance which has the tendency to gain one or more H+
per molecule or ion.
This relation can be expressed in the equation:

Acid === H+ + Base

That is, for every acid, there exists a base, which is produced when the acid loses a
proton H+.
The acid which loses a H+ ion readily is a strong acid and the acid which loses a
proton with difficulty is a weak acid. It is obvious that must have a weak conjugate
base and vive versa e.g.:

Strong acid Weak base

HCl == H+ + Cl-
H2SO4== 2H+ + SO4—

Weak acid Strong base

H2O == H+ + OH-

The following definitions can now be formally stated:

An acid is a substance which shows a tendency to loose a proton; if the tendency is

marked, the acid is said to be strong and vice versa.

A base is a substance which shows a tendency to gain a proton: if the tendency is

marked, the base is said to be strong and vice versa.

An alkali is a substance which is soluble in water and produces the hydroxyl base,
OH- in solution.

Properties of Acids