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6.4: Classifying Chemical Reactions (Acids and Bases)

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    Skills to Develop

    • 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 \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    This figure shows two flasks, labeled a and b. The flasks are both sealed with stoppers and are nearly three-quarters full of a liquid. Flask a is labeled H C l followed by g in parentheses. In the liquid there are approximately twenty space-filling molecular models composed of one red sphere and two smaller attached white spheres. The label H subscript 2 O followed by a q in parentheses is connected with a line to one of these models. In the space above the liquid in the flask, four space filling molecular models composed of one larger green sphere to which a smaller white sphere is bonded are shown. To one of these models, the label H C l followed by g in parentheses is attached with a line segment. An arrow is drawn from the space above the liquid pointing down into the liquid below. Flask b is labeled H subscript 3 O superscript positive sign followed by a q in parentheses. This is followed by a plus sign and C l superscript negative sign which is also followed by a q in parentheses. In this flask, no molecules are shown in the open space above the liquid. A label, C l superscript negative sign followed by a q in parentheses, is connected with a line segment to a green sphere. This sphere is surrounded by four molecules composed each of one red sphere and two white smaller spheres. A few of these same molecules appear separate from the green spheres in the liquid. A line segment connects one of them to the label H subscript 2 O which is followed by l in parentheses. There are a few molecules formed from one central larger red sphere to which three smaller white spheres are bonded. A line segment is drawn from one of these to the label H subscript 3 O superscript positive sign, followed by a q in parentheses.

    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.)

    This figure contains two images, each with an associated structural formula provided in the lower left corner of the image. The first image is a photograph of a variety of thinly sliced, circular cross sections of citrus fruits ranging in color for green to yellow, to orange and reddish-orange. The slices are closely packed on a white background. The structural formula with this picture shows a central chain of five C atoms. The leftmost C atom has an O atom double bonded above and to the left and a singly bonded O atom below and to the left. This single bonded O atom has an H atom indicated in red on its left side which is highlighted in pink. The second C atom moving to the right has H atoms bonded above and below. The third C atom has a single bonded O atom above which has an H atom on its right. This third C atom has a C atom bonded below it which has an O atom double bonded below and to the left and a singly bonded O atom below and to the right. An H atom appears in red and is highlighted in pink to the right of the singly bonded O atom. The fourth C atom has H atoms bonded above and below. The fifth C atom is at the right end of the structure. It has an O atom double bonded above and to the right and a singly bonded O atom below and to the right. This single bonded O atom has a red H atom on its right side which is highlighted in pink. The second image is a photograph of bottles of vinegar. The bottles are labeled, “Balsamic Vinegar,” and appear to be clear and colorless. The liquid in this bottle appears to be brown. The structural formula that appears with this image shows a chain of two C atoms. The leftmost C atom has H atoms bonded above, below, and to the left. The C atom on the right has a doubly bonded O atom above and to the right and a singly bonded O atom below and to the right. This O atom has an H atom bonded to its right which is highlighted in pink.

    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.

    This photograph shows a large agricultural tractor in a field pulling a field sprayer and a large, white cylindrical tank which is labeled “Caution Ammonia.”

    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


    (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.)


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

    Phet Simulation

    Chemistry in Everyday Life

    Stomach Antacids

    Our stomachs contain a solution of roughly 0.03 M HCl, which helps us digest the food we eat. The burning sensation associated with heartburn is a result of the acid of the stomach leaking through the muscular valve at the top of the stomach into the lower reaches of the esophagus. The lining of the esophagus is not protected from the corrosive effects of stomach acid the way the lining of the stomach is, and the results can be very painful. When we have heartburn, it feels better if we reduce the excess acid in the esophagus by taking an antacid. As you may have guessed, antacids are bases. One of the most common antacids is calcium carbonate, CaCO3. The reaction,


    not only neutralizes stomach acid, it also produces CO2(g), which may result in a satisfying belch.

    Milk of Magnesia is a suspension of the sparingly soluble base magnesium hydroxide, Mg(OH)2. It works according to the reaction:


    The hydroxide ions generated in this equilibrium then go on to react with the hydronium ions from the stomach acid, so that:


    This reaction does not produce carbon dioxide, but magnesium-containing antacids can have a laxative effect. Several antacids have aluminum hydroxide, Al(OH)3, as an active ingredient. The aluminum hydroxide tends to cause constipation, and some antacids use aluminum hydroxide in concert with magnesium hydroxide to balance the side effects of the two substances.


    Culinary Aspects of Chemistry

    Examples of acid-base chemistry are abundant in the culinary world. One example is the use of baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate in baking. NaHCO3 is a base. When it reacts with an acid such as lemon juice, buttermilk, or sour cream in a batter, bubbles of carbon dioxide gas are formed from decomposition of the resulting carbonic acid, and the batter “rises.” Baking powder is a combination of sodium bicarbonate, and one or more acid salts that react when the two chemicals come in contact with water in the batter.

    Many people like to put lemon juice or vinegar, both of which are acids, on cooked fish (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). It turns out that fish have volatile amines (bases) in their systems, which are neutralized by the acids to yield involatile ammonium salts. This reduces the odor of the fish, and also adds a “sour” taste that we seem to enjoy.

    Figure 6,3,4.jpeg

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): A neutralization reaction takes place between citric acid in lemons or acetic acid in vinegar, and the bases in the flesh of fish.

    Pickling is a method used to preserve vegetables using a naturally produced acidic environment. The vegetable, such as a cucumber, is placed in a sealed jar submerged in a brine solution. The brine solution favors the growth of beneficial bacteria and suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria. The beneficial bacteria feed on starches in the cucumber and produce lactic acid as a waste product in a process called fermentation. The lactic acid eventually increases the acidity of the brine to a level that kills any harmful bacteria, which require a basic environment. Without the harmful bacteria consuming the cucumbers they are able to last much longer than if they were unprotected. A byproduct of the pickling process changes the flavor of the vegetables with the acid making them taste sour.


    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.


    substance that produces H3O+ when dissolved in water
    acid-base reaction
    reaction involving the transfer of a hydrogen ion between reactant species
    substance that produces OH when dissolved in water
    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


    • 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

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