Skip to main content

# 2.5.6: Classifying Chemical Reactions (Acids and Bases)

Learning Objectives

• Define three common types of chemical reactions (precipitation, acid-base, and oxidation-reduction)
• Classify chemical reactions as one of these three types given appropriate descriptions or chemical equations
• Identify common acids and bases

## Acid-Base Reactions

Video $$\PageIndex{1}$$: An introduction to acids and bases.

An acid-base reaction is one in which a hydrogen ion, H+, is transferred from one chemical species to another. Such reactions are of central importance to numerous natural and technological processes, ranging from the chemical transformations that take place within cells and the lakes and oceans, to the industrial-scale production of fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and other substances essential to society. The subject of acid-base chemistry, therefore, is worthy of thorough discussion, which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this course.

For purposes of this brief introduction, we will consider only the more common types of acid-base reactions that take place in aqueous solutions. In this context, an acid is a substance that will dissolve in water to yield hydronium ions, H3O+. As an example, consider the equation shown here:

$\ce{HCl}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(aq)\rightarrow \ce{Cl-}(aq)+\ce{H3O+}(aq)$

The process represented by this equation confirms that hydrogen chloride is an acid. When dissolved in water, H3O+ ions are produced by a chemical reaction in which H+ ions are transferred from HCl molecules to H2O molecules (Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$).

Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$: When hydrogen chloride gas dissolves in water, (a) it reacts as an acid, transferring protons to water molecules to yield (b) hydronium ions (and solvated chloride ions)

The nature of HCl is such that its reaction with water as just described is essentially 100% efficient: Virtually every HCl molecule that dissolves in water will undergo this reaction. Acids that completely react in this fashion are called strong acids, and HCl is one among just a handful of common acid compounds that are classified as strong (Table $$\PageIndex{1}$$). A far greater number of compounds behave as weak acids and only partially react with water, leaving a large majority of dissolved molecules in their original form and generating a relatively small amount of hydronium ions. Weak acids are commonly encountered in nature, being the substances partly responsible for the tangy taste of citrus fruits, the stinging sensation of insect bites, and the unpleasant smells associated with body odor. A familiar example of a weak acid is acetic acid, the main ingredient in food vinegars:

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

When dissolved in water under typical conditions, only about 1% of acetic acid molecules are present in the ionized form, $$\ce{CH3CO2-}$$ (Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$). (The use of a double-arrow in the equation above denotes the partial reaction aspect of this process, a concept addressed fully in the chapters on chemical equilibrium.)

Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$: (a) Fruits such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruit contain the weak acid citric acid. (b) Vinegars contain the weak acid acetic acid. (credit a: modification of work by Scott Bauer; credit b: modification of work by Brücke-Osteuropa/Wikimedia Commons)

Table $$\PageIndex{1}$$: Common Strong Acids
Compound Formula Name in Aqueous Solution
HBr hydrobromic acid
HCl hydrochloric acid
HI hydroiodic acid
HNO3 nitric acid
HClO4 perchloric acid
H2SO4 sulfuric acid

A base is a substance that will dissolve in water to yield hydroxide ions, OH. The most common bases are ionic compounds composed of alkali or alkaline earth metal cations (groups 1 and 2) combined with the hydroxide ion—for example, NaOH and Ca(OH)2. When these compounds dissolve in water, hydroxide ions are released directly into the solution. For example, KOH and Ba(OH)2 dissolve in water and dissociate completely to produce cations (K+ and Ba2+, respectively) and hydroxide ions, OH. These bases, along with other hydroxides that completely dissociate in water, are considered strong bases.

Consider as an example the dissolution of lye (sodium hydroxide) in water:

$\ce{NaOH}(s)\rightarrow \ce{Na+}(aq)+\ce{OH-}(aq)$

This equation confirms that sodium hydroxide is a base. When dissolved in water, NaOH dissociates to yield Na+ and OH ions. This is also true for any other ionic compound containing hydroxide ions. Since the dissociation process is essentially complete when ionic compounds dissolve in water under typical conditions, NaOH and other ionic hydroxides are all classified as strong bases.

Unlike ionic hydroxides, some compounds produce hydroxide ions when dissolved by chemically reacting with water molecules. In all cases, these compounds react only partially and so are classified as weak bases. These types of compounds are also abundant in nature and important commodities in various technologies. For example, global production of the weak base ammonia is typically well over 100 metric tons annually, being widely used as an agricultural fertilizer, a raw material for chemical synthesis of other compounds, and an active ingredient in household cleaners (Figure $$\PageIndex{3}$$). When dissolved in water, ammonia reacts partially to yield hydroxide ions, as shown here:

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

This is, by definition, an acid-base reaction, in this case involving the transfer of H+ ions from water molecules to ammonia molecules. Under typical conditions, only about 1% of the dissolved ammonia is present as $$\ce{NH4+}$$ ions.

Figure $$\PageIndex{3}$$: Ammonia is a weak base used in a variety of applications. (a) Pure ammonia is commonly applied as an agricultural fertilizer. (b) Dilute solutions of ammonia are effective household cleansers. (credit a: modification of work by National Resources Conservation Service; credit b: modification of work by pat00139)

The chemical reactions described in which acids and bases dissolved in water produce hydronium and hydroxide ions, respectively, are, by definition, acid-base reactions. In these reactions, water serves as both a solvent and a reactant. A neutralization reaction is a specific type of acid-base reaction in which the reactants are an acid and a base, the products are often a salt and water, and neither reactant is the water itself:

$\mathrm{acid+base\rightarrow salt+water}$

To illustrate a neutralization reaction, consider what happens when a typical antacid such as milk of magnesia (an aqueous suspension of solid Mg(OH)2) is ingested to ease symptoms associated with excess stomach acid (HCl):

$\ce{Mg(OH)2}(s)+\ce{2HCl}(aq)\rightarrow \ce{MgCl2}(aq)+\ce{2H2O}(l).$

Note that in addition to water, this reaction produces a salt, magnesium chloride.

Example $$\PageIndex{1}$$: Writing Equations for Acid-Base Reactions

Write balanced chemical equations for the acid-base reactions described here:

1. the weak acid hydrogen hypochlorite reacts with water
2. a solution of barium hydroxide is neutralized with a solution of nitric acid

Solution

(a) The two reactants are provided, HOCl and H2O. Since the substance is reported to be an acid, its reaction with water will involve the transfer of H+ from HOCl to H2O to generate hydronium ions, H3O+ and hypochlorite ions, OCl.

$\ce{HOCl}(aq)+\ce{H2O}(l)\rightleftharpoons \ce{OCl-}(aq)+\ce{H3O+}(aq) \nonumber$

A double-arrow is appropriate in this equation because it indicates the HOCl is a weak acid that has not reacted completely.

(b) The two reactants are provided, Ba(OH)2 and HNO3. Since this is a neutralization reaction, the two products will be water and a salt composed of the cation of the ionic hydroxide (Ba2+) and the anion generated when the acid transfers its hydrogen ion $$\ce{(NO3- )}$$.

$\ce{Ba(OH)2}(aq)+\ce{2HNO3}(aq)\rightarrow \ce{Ba(NO3)2}(aq)+\ce{2H2O}(l) \nonumber$

Exercise $$\PageIndex{1}$$

Write the net ionic equation representing the neutralization of any strong acid with an ionic hydroxide. (Hint: Consider the ions produced when a strong acid is dissolved in water.)

Answer

$\ce{H3O+}(aq)+\ce{OH-}(aq)\rightarrow \ce{2H2O}(l) \nonumber$

Phet Simulation

## Summary

Video $$\PageIndex{2}$$: A summary of acid/base reactions.

Chemical reactions are classified according to similar patterns of behavior. A large number of important reactions are included in three categories: precipitation, acid-base, and oxidation-reduction (redox). Precipitation reactions involve the formation of one or more insoluble products. Acid-base reactions involve the transfer of hydrogen ions between reactants. Redox reactions involve a change in oxidation number for one or more reactant elements. Writing balanced equations for some redox reactions that occur in aqueous solutions is simplified by using a systematic approach called the half-reaction method.

### Glossary

acid
substance that produces H3O+ when dissolved in water
acid-base reaction
reaction involving the transfer of a hydrogen ion between reactant species
base
substance that produces OH when dissolved in water
salt
ionic compound that can be formed by the reaction of an acid with a base that contains a cation and an anion other than hydroxide or oxide
strong acid
acid that reacts completely when dissolved in water to yield hydronium ions
strong base
base that reacts completely when dissolved in water to yield hydroxide ions
weak acid
acid that reacts only to a slight extent when dissolved in water to yield hydronium ions
weak base
base that reacts only to a slight extent when dissolved in water to yield hydroxide ions

## Contributors and Attributions

• Paul Flowers (University of North Carolina - Pembroke), Klaus Theopold (University of Delaware) and Richard Langley (Stephen F. Austin State University) with contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/85abf193-2bd...a7ac8df6@9.110).

• Adelaide Clark, Oregon Institute of Technology
• Crash Course Chemistry: Crash Course is a division of Complexly and videos are free to stream for educational purposes.
• TED-Ed’s commitment to creating lessons worth sharing is an extension of TED’s mission of spreading great ideas. Within TED-Ed’s growing library of TED-Ed animations, you will find carefully curated educational videos, many of which represent collaborations between talented educators and animators nominated through the TED-Ed website.

#### Feedback

Have feedback to give about this text? Click here.

Found a typo and want extra credit? Click here.