# 1.5.5: Buffers

Learning Objectives

• Describe the composition and function of acid–base buffers

A mixture of a weak acid and its conjugate base (or a mixture of a weak base and its conjugate acid) is called a buffer solution, or a buffer. Buffer solutions resist a change in pH when small amounts of a strong acid or a strong base are added (Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$). A solution of acetic acid ($$\ce{CH3COOH}$$ and sodium acetate $$\ce{CH3COONa}$$) is an example of a buffer that consists of a weak acid and its salt. An example of a buffer that consists of a weak base and its salt is a solution of ammonia ($$\ce{NH3(aq)}$$) and ammonium chloride ($$\ce{NH4Cl(aq)}$$). Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$: (a) The unbuffered solution on the left and the buffered solution on the right have the same pH (pH 8); they are basic, showing the yellow color of the indicator methyl orange at this pH. (b) After the addition of 1 mL of a 0.01-M HCl solution, the buffered solution has not detectably changed its pH but the unbuffered solution has become acidic, as indicated by the change in color of the methyl orange, which turns red at a pH of about 4. (credit: modification of work by Mark Ott)

## How Buffers Work

A mixture of acetic acid and sodium acetate is a buffer because it contains both the weak acid and its salt. Hence, it acts to keep the hydronium ion concentration (and the pH) almost constant by the addition of either a small amount of a strong acid or a strong base. If we add a base such as sodium hydroxide, the hydroxide ions react with the few hydronium ions present. Then more of the acetic acid reacts with water, restoring the hydronium ion concentration almost to its original value:

$\ce{CH3CO2H}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)⟶\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{CH3CO2-}(aq)$

The pH changes very little. If we add an acid such as hydrochloric acid, most of the hydronium ions from the hydrochloric acid combine with acetate ions, forming acetic acid molecules:

$\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{CH3CO2-}(aq)⟶\ce{CH3CO2H}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)$

Thus, there is very little increase in the concentration of the hydronium ion, and the pH remains practically unchanged (Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$). Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$: This diagram shows the buffer action of these reactions.

A mixture of ammonia and ammonium chloride is a buffer because it also contains the salt of the weak base. If we add a base (hydroxide ions), ammonium ions in the buffer react with the hydroxide ions to form ammonia and water and reduce the hydroxide ion concentration almost to its original value:

$\ce{NH4+}(aq)+\ce{OH-}(aq)⟶\ce{NH3}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)$

If we add an acid (hydronium ions), ammonia molecules in the buffer mixture react with the hydronium ions to form ammonium ions and reduce the hydronium ion concentration almost to its original value:

$\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{NH3}(aq)⟶\ce{NH4+}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)$

## Buffer Capacity

Buffer solutions do not have an unlimited capacity to keep the pH relatively constant (Figure $$\PageIndex{3}$$). If we add so much base to a buffer that the weak acid is exhausted, no more buffering action toward the base is possible. On the other hand, if we add an excess of acid, the weak base would be exhausted, and no more buffering action toward any additional acid would be possible. In fact, we do not even need to exhaust all of the acid or base in a buffer to overwhelm it; its buffering action will diminish rapidly as a given component nears depletion. Figure $$\PageIndex{3}$$: The indicator color (methyl orange) shows that a small amount of acid added to a buffered solution of pH 8 (beaker on the left) has little affect on the buffered system (middle beaker). However, a large amount of acid exhausts the buffering capacity of the solution and the pH changes dramatically (beaker on the right). (credit: modification of work by Mark Ott)

The buffer capacity is the amount of acid or base that can be added to a given volume of a buffer solution before the pH changes significantly, usually by one unit. Buffer capacity depends on the amounts of the weak acid and its conjugate base that are in a buffer mixture. For example, 1 L of a solution that is 1.0 M in acetic acid and 1.0 M in sodium acetate has a greater buffer capacity than 1 L of a solution that is 0.10 M in acetic acid and 0.10 M in sodium acetate even though both solutions have the same pH. The first solution has more buffer capacity because it contains more acetic acid and acetate ion.

## Selection of Suitable Buffer Mixtures

There are two useful rules of thumb for selecting buffer mixtures:

1. A good buffer mixture should have about equal concentrations of both of its components. A buffer solution has generally lost its usefulness when one component of the buffer pair is less than about 10% of the other. Figure $$\PageIndex{4}$$ shows an acetic acid-acetate ion buffer as base is added. The initial pH is 4.74. A change of 1 pH unit occurs when the acetic acid concentration is reduced to 11% of the acetate ion concentration. Figure $$\PageIndex{4}$$: The graph, an illustration of buffering action, shows change of pH as an increasing amount of a 0.10-M NaOH solution is added to 100 mL of a buffer solution in which, initially, [CH3CO2H] = 0.10 M and $$\ce{[CH3CO2- ]}=0.10\:M$$.

1. Weak acids and their salts are better as buffers for pHs less than 7; weak bases and their salts are better as buffers for pHs greater than 7.

Blood is an important example of a buffered solution, with the principal acid and ion responsible for the buffering action being carbonic acid, H2CO3, and the bicarbonate ion, $$\ce{HCO3-}$$. When an excess of hydrogen ion enters the blood stream, it is removed primarily by the reaction:

$\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{HCO3-}(aq)⟶\ce{H2CO3}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)$

When an excess of the hydroxide ion is present, it is removed by the reaction:

$\ce{OH-}(aq)+\ce{H2CO3}(aq)⟶\ce{HCO3-}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)$

The pH of human blood thus remains very near 7.35, that is, slightly basic. Variations are usually less than 0.1 of a pH unit. A change of 0.4 of a pH unit is likely to be fatal.

Lawrence Joseph Henderson and Karl Albert Hasselbalch

Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878–1942) was an American physician, biochemist and physiologist, to name only a few of his many pursuits. He obtained a medical degree from Harvard and then spent 2 years studying in Strasbourg, then a part of Germany, before returning to take a lecturer position at Harvard. He eventually became a professor at Harvard and worked there his entire life. He discovered that the acid-base balance in human blood is regulated by a buffer system formed by the dissolved carbon dioxide in blood. He wrote an equation in 1908 to describe the carbonic acid-carbonate buffer system in blood. Henderson was broadly knowledgeable; in addition to his important research on the physiology of blood, he also wrote on the adaptations of organisms and their fit with their environments, on sociology and on university education. He also founded the Fatigue Laboratory, at the Harvard Business School, which examined human physiology with specific focus on work in industry, exercise, and nutrition.

In 1916, Karl Albert Hasselbalch (1874–1962), a Danish physician and chemist, shared authorship in a paper with Christian Bohr in 1904 that described the Bohr effect, which showed that the ability of hemoglobin in the blood to bind with oxygen was inversely related to the acidity of the blood and the concentration of carbon dioxide. The pH scale was introduced in 1909 by another Dane, Sørensen, and in 1912, Hasselbalch published measurements of the pH of blood. In 1916, Hasselbalch expressed Henderson’s equation in logarithmic terms, consistent with the logarithmic scale of pH, and thus the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation was born.

Medicine: The Buffer System in Blood

The normal pH of human blood is about 7.4. The carbonate buffer system in the blood uses the following equilibrium reaction:

$\ce{CO2}(g)+\ce{2H2O}(l)⇌\ce{H2CO3}(aq)⇌\ce{HCO3-}(aq)+\ce{H3O+}(aq)$

The concentration of carbonic acid, H2CO3 is approximately 0.0012 M, and the concentration of the hydrogen carbonate ion, $$\ce{HCO3-}$$, is around 0.024 M. Using the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation and the pKa of carbonic acid at body temperature, we can calculate the pH of blood:

$\mathrm{pH=p\mathit{K}_a+\log\dfrac{[base]}{[acid]}=6.1+\log\dfrac{0.024}{0.0012}=7.4}$

The fact that the H2CO3 concentration is significantly lower than that of the $$\ce{HCO3-}$$ ion may seem unusual, but this imbalance is due to the fact that most of the by-products of our metabolism that enter our bloodstream are acidic. Therefore, there must be a larger proportion of base than acid, so that the capacity of the buffer will not be exceeded.

Lactic acid is produced in our muscles when we exercise. As the lactic acid enters the bloodstream, it is neutralized by the $$\ce{HCO3-}$$ ion, producing H2CO3. An enzyme then accelerates the breakdown of the excess carbonic acid to carbon dioxide and water, which can be eliminated by breathing. In fact, in addition to the regulating effects of the carbonate buffering system on the pH of blood, the body uses breathing to regulate blood pH. If the pH of the blood decreases too far, an increase in breathing removes CO2 from the blood through the lungs driving the equilibrium reaction such that [H3O+] is lowered. If the blood is too alkaline, a lower breath rate increases CO2 concentration in the blood, driving the equilibrium reaction the other way, increasing [H+] and restoring an appropriate pH.

## Summary

A solution containing a mixture of an acid and its conjugate base, or of a base and its conjugate acid, is called a buffer solution. Unlike in the case of an acid, base, or salt solution, the hydronium ion concentration of a buffer solution does not change greatly when a small amount of acid or base is added to the buffer solution. The base (or acid) in the buffer reacts with the added acid (or base).

## Glossary

buffer capacity
amount of an acid or base that can be added to a volume of a buffer solution before its pH changes significantly (usually by one pH unit)
buffer
mixture of a weak acid or a weak base and the salt of its conjugate; the pH of a buffer resists change when small amounts of acid or base are added