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6.4.4: Substances' solution phase Lewis basicity towards a given acid may be estimated using the enthalphy change for dissociation of its adduct with a reference acid of similar hardness.

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    A number of spectroscopic and thermodynamic scales have been developed to quantify the strength of Lewis acids and bases.1,2 For the sake of simplicity only thermodynamic scales will be described. Thermodynamic scales are based on the energetics of Lewis acid-base reactions. When substances act as a Lewis base (\(\ce{B}\)) they form adducts with a Lewis acid (\(\ce{A}\)):

    \[B:~+~A~⇌ ~B-A \nonumber \]

    Various thermodynamic parameters for this process may be taken as a measure of the strength of the Lewis base towards that acid. For instance, in the case of iodine charge transfer complexes, the equilibrium constant for adduct formation is sometimes used as an informal measure of Lewis base strength.

    The thermodynamic parameters used to define Lewis acid and base strength are similar to those used to define Brønsted acidity and basicity. Just as Brønsted acidity and basicity were defined in terms of the free energy change for the dissociation and association of a hydrogen ion, Lewis acidities and basicities are defined in terms of the free energy change for adduct formation:

    \[B:~+~A_{reference}~ ⇌ ~B-A~~~~~~- \Delta G~=~Lewis~basicity~of~B~towards~A \nonumber \]

    \[B:_{reference}~+~A~ ⇌ ~B-A~~~~~~- \Delta G~=~Lewis~acidity~of~A~towards~B \nonumber \]

    The physical meaning of Lewis acidities and basicities may be easier to grasp by considering that Lewis acidities and basicities correspond to the free energy for dissociation of acid-base adducts:

    \[B-A~ ⇌ ~B:~+~A_{reference}~~~~~~ \Delta G~=~Lewis~basicity~of~B~towards~A \nonumber \]

    \[B-A~ ⇌ ~B:_{reference}~+~A~~~~~~ \Delta G~=~Lewis~acidity~of~A~towards~B \nonumber \]

    Since in practice it is much easier to measure the reaction enthalpies for these processes, many scales use the enthalpy change instead of the free energies. To distinguish these enthalpy changes from Lewis acidities and basicities, the enthalpy changes are called Lewis acid and base affinities. Of these, however, Lewis acid affinities are poorly characterized at present (perhaps one of you readers will help redress this). Thus the remainder of this section will focus on Lewis base affinities.

    Before discussing Lewis base affinities it is worth noting that there is no universal reference scale of Lewis base strength. That is because the thermodynamics of a given Lewis acid-base interaction is contingent on a number of factors, including:

    • The relative hardness of the acid and base according to Pearson's hard-soft acid base principle. Roughly, Lewis acids tend to associate more strongly with Lewis bases with similar charge densities and polarizabilities. This means that the affinity of a given base for Lewis acids is not a static parameter. Rather it differs markedly with the acid's hardness.
    • Steric effects. Sterically hindered Lewis acid-base interactions will be weaker than sterically accessible ones.
    • Solvent effects. In solutions, the adduct and the free acid and base pair will in general be differentially stabilized. To avoid solvent effects, some scales quantify Lewis acid and base strength in terms of gas phase adduct formation. However, it is not always possible or desirable to quantify a Lewis acid or base's strength in the gas phase, since gas phase affinities do not always allow for adequate prediction of the strength of a Lewis acid-base interaction in solution.

    Because Lewis base affinity depends on hardness, steric effects, and solvent effects care should be taken when acid-base parameters are used to predict the strength of a given interaction. In particular, steric effects should be considered separately, and if predictions are made using scales that employ reference acids or bases that differ markedly in hardness from the interaction to be predicted or which correspond to unrealistic solvent conditions, they should always be taken as tentative.


    1. Laurence, C.; Graton, J.; Gal, J.-F., An Overview of Lewis Basicity and Affinity Scales. Journal of Chemical Education 2011, 88 (12), 1651-1657.
    2. Laurence, C.; Gal, J.-F. o., Lewis basicity and affinity scales: data and measurement. John Wiley: Chichester, West Sussex, U.K., 2010.