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1.5.4: Polyprotic Acids

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Determine if an acid or base is monoprotic, diprotic, or triprotic given the chemical formula.


    We can classify acids by the number of protons per molecule that they can give up in a reaction. Acids such as \(\ce{HCl}\), \(\ce{HNO3}\), and \(\ce{HCN}\) that contain one ionizable hydrogen atom in each molecule are called monoprotic acids. Their reactions with water are:




    Even though it contains four hydrogen atoms, acetic acid, \(\ce{CH3CO2H}\), is also monoprotic because only the hydrogen atom from the carboxyl group (\(\ce{-COOH}\)) reacts with bases:

    This image contains two equilibrium reactions. The first shows a C atom bonded to three H atoms and another C atom. The second C atom is double bonded to an O atom and also forms a single bond to another O atom. The second O atom is bonded to an H atom. There is a plus sign and then the molecular formula H subscript 2 O. An equilibrium arrow follows the H subscript 2 O. To the right of the arrow is H subscript 3 O superscript positive sign. There is a plus sign. The final structure shows a C atom bonded the three H atoms and another C atom. This second C atom is double bonded to an O atom and single bonded to another O atom. The entire structure is in brackets and a superscript negative sign appears outside the brackets. The second reaction shows C H subscript 3 C O O H ( a q ) plus H subscript 2 O ( l ) equilibrium arrow H subscript 3 O ( a q ) plus C H subscript 3 C O O superscript negative sign ( a q ).

    Similarly, monoprotic bases are bases that will accept a single proton.

    Diprotic Acids

    Diprotic acids contain two ionizable hydrogen atoms per molecule; ionization of such acids occurs in two steps. The first ionization always takes place to a greater extent than the second ionization. For example, sulfuric acid, a strong acid, ionizes as follows:

    • The first ionization is

    \[ \ce{H2SO4}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)⇌\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{HSO4-}(aq)\]

    • The second ionization is

    \[ \ce{HSO4-}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)⇌\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{SO4^{2−}}(aq)\]

    This stepwise ionization process occurs for all polyprotic acids. When we make a solution of a weak diprotic acid, we get a solution that contains a mixture of acids. Carbonic acid, \(\ce{H2CO3}\), is an example of a weak diprotic acid. The first ionization of carbonic acid yields hydronium ions and bicarbonate ions in small amounts.

    • First Ionization


    The bicarbonate ion can also act as an acid. It ionizes and forms hydronium ions and carbonate ions in even smaller quantities.

    • Second Ionization


    Triprotic Acids

    A triprotic acid is an acid that has three dissociable protons that undergo stepwise ionization: Phosphoric acid is a typical example:

    • The first ionization is

    \[\ce{H3PO4}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)⇌\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{H2PO4-}(aq) \]

    • The second ionization is


    • The third ionization is

    \[\ce{HPO4^2-}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)⇌\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{PO4^3-}(aq) \]

    As with the diprotic acids, the differences in the ionization constants of these reactions tell us that in each successive step the degree of ionization is significantly weaker. This is a general characteristic of polyprotic acids and successive ionization constants often differ by a factor of about 105 to 106. This set of three dissociation reactions may appear to make calculations of equilibrium concentrations in a solution of H3PO4 complicated. However, because the successive ionization constants differ by a factor of 105 to 106, the calculations can be broken down into a series of parts similar to those for diprotic acids.

    Polyprotic bases can accept more than one hydrogen ion in solution. The carbonate ion is an example of a diprotic base, since it can accept up to two protons. Solutions of alkali metal carbonates are quite alkaline, due to the reactions:

    \[\ce{H2O}(l)+\ce{CO3^2-}(aq)⇌\ce{HCO3-}(aq)+\ce{OH-}(aq) \]




    An acid that contains more than one ionizable proton is a polyprotic acid. The protons of these acids ionize in steps. The differences in the acid ionization constants for the successive ionizations of the protons in a polyprotic acid usually vary by roughly five orders of magnitude.


    diprotic acid
    acid containing two ionizable hydrogen atoms per molecule. A diprotic acid ionizes in two steps
    diprotic base
    base capable of accepting two protons. The protons are accepted in two steps
    monoprotic acid
    acid containing one ionizable hydrogen atom per molecule
    stepwise ionization
    process in which an acid is ionized by losing protons sequentially
    triprotic acid
    acid that contains three ionizable hydrogen atoms per molecule; ionization of triprotic acids occurs in three steps

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