Organic Chemistry/Foundational concepts of organic chemistry/Acids and bases

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Arrhenius Definition: Hydroxide and Hydronium Ions edit

The first and earliest definition of acids and bases was proposed in the 1800s by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, who said that an acid was anything that dissolved in water to yield H+ ions (like stomach acid HCl, hydrochloric acid), and a base was anything that dissolved in water to give up OH- ions (like soda lye NaOH, sodium hydroxide). Acids and bases were already widely used in various occupations and activities of the time, so Arrhenius' definition merely attempted to explained well-known and long-observed phenomenon.

Although simple, at the time this definition of the two types of substances was significant. It allowed chemists to explain certain reactions as ion chemistry, and it also expanded the ability of scientists of the time to predict certain chemical reactions. The definition left a great deal wanting, however, in that many types of reactions that did not involve hydroxide or hydronium ions directly remained unexplained.

Many general chemistry classes (especially in the lower grades or introductory levels) still use this simple definition of acids and bases today, but modern organic chemists make further distinctions between acids and bases than the distinctions provided under Arrhenius's definition.

Brønsted-Lowry Acids and Bases: Proton donors and acceptors edit

A new definition for acids and bases, building upon the one already proposed by Arrhenius, was brought forth independently by Johannes Nicolaus Brønsted and Thomas Martin Lowry in 1923. The new definition did not depend on a substance's dissolution in water for definition, but instead suggested that a substance was acidic if it readily donated a proton (H+) to a reaction and a substance was basic if it accepted a proton in a reaction.

Definition of Brønsted-Lowry Acid and Base

An acid is any proton donor and a base is any proton acceptor.

The major advantage of the updated definition was that it was not limited to aqueous solution. This definition of acids and bases allowed chemists to explain a great number of reactions that took place in protic or aprotic solvents that were not water, and it also allowed for gaseous and solid phase reactions (although those reactions are more rare).

For example, the hypothetical acid HA will disassociate into H+ and A-:


The Brønsted-Lowry definition of acids and bases is one of two definitions still in common use by modern chemists.

Lewis Acids and Bases: Electron donors and acceptors edit

The second definition in widespread use deals not with a molecule's propensity for accepting or donating protons but rather with accepting or donating electrons, thereby demonstrating a slightly different emphasis and further broadening the explanatory and predictive powers of acid-base chemistry.

Definition of Lewis Acids and Bases

A Lewis acid is an electron acceptor and a Lewis base is an electron donor.

Probably the most important aspect of Lewis acids and bases is which types of atoms can donate electrons, and which types of atoms can receive them. Essentially atoms with lone pairs, i.e. unshared pairs of electrons in an outer shell, have the capability of using those lone pairs to attract electron-deficient atoms or ions. This is why ammonia can bond a fourth hydrogen ion to create the ammonium ion; its lone pair of electrons can attract and bond to a free H+ ion in solution and hold on to it. For the same reason, methane cannot become methanium ion under ordinary circumstances, because the carbon in methane does not have any unshared pairs of electrons orbiting its nucleus. Generally speaking, Lewis acid are in the nitrogen, oxygen or halogen groups of the periodic table.

Nucleophiles and Electrophiles edit

Whether or not an atom can donate or accept electrons it can be called a nucleophile or electrophile, respectively. Electrophiles (literally, "lovers of electrons") are attracted to electrons. Electrophiles therefore seek to pair with unshared electrons of other atoms. Nucleophiles, or "nucleus lovers", seek positively charged nuclei such as those available in acidic solutions as hydronium ions. It is important to note that electrophiles and nucleophiles are often ions, but sometimes they are not.

Understanding electrophiles and nucleophiles goes beyond simply ideas of acids and bases. They are, in a majority of cases, the major players in organic reactions. As we will, over and over again, find reactions that are the result of nucleophiles attacking electrophiles. Keep in mind that the idea of nucleophiles and electrophiles is very related to the ideas of acids and bases in the Lewis context.

But it is also important to understand that, while they are related, they are not exactly the same thing either. An ion or molecule can be a strong nucleophile and a weak base (e.g. N3-, RS-, I-, Br- and CN-). Another ion can be a poor nucleophile and a strong base ((CH3)3CO-, R2N-). And yet others are strong nucleophiles and strong bases (R3C-, RO-, HO-) and poor nucleophiles and poor bases (RCO2-, ROH, NH3).

This will all be discussed in greater detail as the topics of specific reactions and reaction mechanisms are covered. In the meantime, try to bear in mind that nucleophiles are basic and electrophiles are acidic.

pKa and Acidity edit

The acid dissociation constant of a substance is commonly called its pKa, and it is a measure of the negative log of the K value of an acid dissociation reaction. (The K value refers to the equilibrium calculations you learned how to perform in general chemistry—if you have forgotten your K's and Q's, now would be a good time to refresh your memory on the topic.)


The lower the pKa value is, the more acidic (and consequently, less basic) a substance is. There is also a pKb value for all relevant substances, but it is common in organic chemistry to use pKa exclusively, even when discussing bases. This is because extremely high pKa values correlate exactly to extremely low pKb values, so there is no need to use both kinds of measurements. Any pKa value higher than seven means that a substance is not acidic when placed in water, but it does not mean that substance cannot be an acid. Alcohols are a good example of this: they can donate a hydrogen ion in chemical reactions but they do not do so readily, which makes them acidic but only very weakly so. Many of the acids in organic chemistry are considerably weaker than acids used for inorganic chemistry, so discussion of acid-base chemistry in organic reactions may not necessarily relate well to your previous understanding of the topic.

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