Acids and Bases

Acids and Bases

Non-neutral pH readings result from dissolving acids or bases in water. Using the negative logarithm to generate positive integers, high concentrations of hydrogen ions yield a low pH number, whereas low levels of hydrogen ions result in a high pH.

An acid is a substance that increases the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in a solution, usually by having one of its hydrogen atoms dissociate. A base provides either hydroxide ions (OH) or other negatively charged ions that combine with hydrogen ions, reducing their concentration in the solution and thereby raising the pH. In cases where the base releases hydroxide ions, these ions bind to free hydrogen ions, generating new water molecules.

The stronger the acid, the more readily it donates H+. For example, hydrochloric acid (HCl) completely dissociates into hydrogen and chloride ions and is highly acidic. On the other hand, the acids in tomato juice or vinegar do not completely dissociate and are considered weak acids.

Conversely, strong bases are those substances that readily donate OHor take up hydrogen ions. Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and many household cleaners are highly alkaline and give up OH rapidly when placed in water, thereby raising the pH. An example of a weak basic solution is seawater, which has a pH near 8.0, close enough to neutral pH that marine organisms adapted to this saline environment are able to thrive in it.

pH Scale


The pH scale measures the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) in a solution. Image Attribution: Modification of work by Edward Stevens / OpenStax Biology

The pH scale is, as previously mentioned, an inverse logarithm and ranges from 0 to 14 (see image above). Anything below 7.0 (ranging from 0.0 to 6.9) is acidic, and anything above 7.0 (from 7.1 to 14.0) is alkaline. Extremes in pH in either direction from 7.0 are usually considered inhospitable to life. The pH inside cells (6.8) and the pH in the blood (7.4) are both very close to neutral.

However, the environment in the stomach is highly acidic, with a pH of 1 to 2. So how do the cells of the stomach survive in such an acidic environment? How do they homeostatically maintain the near neutral pH inside them? The answer is that they cannot do it and are constantly dying. New stomach cells are constantly produced to replace dead ones, which are digested by the stomach acids. It is estimated that the lining of the human stomach is completely replaced every seven to ten days.


So how can organisms whose bodies require a near-neutral pH ingest acidic and basic substances (a human drinking orange juice, for example) and survive? Buffers are the key. Buffers readily absorb excess H+ or OH, keeping the pH of the body carefully maintained in the narrow range required for survival. Maintaining a constant blood pH is critical to a person’s well-being.

The buffer maintaining the pH of human blood involves carbonic acid (H2CO3), bicarbonate ion (HCO3), and carbon dioxide (CO2). When bicarbonate ions combine with free hydrogen ions and become carbonic acid, hydrogen ions are removed, moderating pH changes.


This diagram shows the body’s buffering of blood pH levels. The blue arrows show the process of raising pH as more CO2 is made. The purple arrows indicate the reverse process: the lowering of pH as more bicarbonate is created. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

Similarly, as you can see in the image above, excess carbonic acid can be converted to carbon dioxide gas and exhaled through the lungs. This prevents too many free hydrogen ions from building up in the blood and dangerously reducing the blood’s pH. Likewise, if too much OH is introduced into the system, carbonic acid will combine with it to create bicarbonate, lowering the pH. Without this buffer system, the body’s pH would fluctuate enough to put survival in jeopardy.

Other examples of buffers are antacids used to combat excess stomach acid. Many of these over-the-counter medications work in the same way as blood buffers, usually with at least one ion capable of absorbing hydrogen and moderating pH, bringing relief to those that suffer “heartburn” after eating. The unique properties of water that contribute to this capacity to balance pH—as well as water’s other characteristics—are essential to sustaining life on Earth.

Video explaining pH scale

The video below by MedicCast Productions is a straightforward explanation of pH and its logarithmic scale.

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