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STRONG AND WEAK ACIDS

This page explains the terms strong and weak as applied to acids.
As a part of this it defines and explains what is meant by pH, Ka
and pKa.
It is important that you don't confuse the words strong and weak
with the terms concentrated and dilute.
As you will see below, the strength of an acid is related to the
proportion of it which has reacted with water to produce ions. The
concentration tells you about how much of the original acid is
dissolved in the solution.
It is perfectly possible to have a concentrated solution of a weak
acid, or a dilute solution of a strong acid. Read on . . .

Strong acids
Explaining the term "strong acid"
We are going to use the Bronsted-Lowry definition of an acid.
Note: If you don't know what the Bronsted-Lowry theory of
acids is, you should read about theories of acids and bases
on another page in this section. You don't need to spend time
reading about Lewis acids and bases for the purposes of this
present page.
Use the BACK button on your browser when you are ready to
return to this page.

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When an acid dissolves in water, a proton (hydrogen ion) is


transferred to a water molecule to produce a hydroxonium ion and
a negative ion depending on what acid you are starting from.
In the general case . . .

These reactions are all reversible, but in some cases, the acid is
so good at giving away hydrogen ions that we can think of the
reaction as being one-way. The acid is virtually 100% ionised.
For example, when hydrogen chloride dissolves in water to make
hydrochloric acid, so little of the reverse reaction happens that we
can write:

At any one time, virtually 100% of the hydrogen chloride will have
reacted to produce hydroxonium ions and chloride ions. Hydrogen
chloride is described as a strong acid.

A strong acid is one which is virtually 100% ionised in solution.


Other common strong acids include sulphuric acid and nitric acid.
You may find the equation for the ionisation written in a simplified
form:

This shows the hydrogen chloride dissolved in the water splitting to


give hydrogen ions in solution and chloride ions in solution.
This version is often used in this work just to make things look
easier. If you use it, remember that the water is actually involved,
and that when you write H+(aq) what you really mean is a
hydroxonium ion, H3O+.
Note: You should find out what your examiners prefer on
this. You are unlikely to find this from your syllabus, but
should look at recent exam papers and mark schemes. If you
are doing a UK-based exam and haven't got copies of your
syllabus and past papers, you should have! Follow this link to
find out how to get hold of them.

Strong acids and pH


pH is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in a
solution. Strong acids like hydrochloric acid at the sort of
concentrations you normally use in the lab have a pH around 0 to 1.
The lower the pH, the higher the concentration of hydrogen ions in
the solution.
Defining pH

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Note: If you are asked to define pH in an exam, simply write


down the expression in black. Never try to define it in words it is a waste of time, and you are too likely to miss something
out (like mentioning that the concentration has to be in mol
dm-3). In the expression, above, the square brackets imply
that, so you don't need to mention it.

Working out the pH of a strong acid


Suppose you had to work out the pH of 0.1 mol dm-3 hydrochloric
acid. All you have to do is work out the concentration of the
hydrogen ions in the solution, and then use your calculator to
convert it to a pH.
With strong acids this is easy.
Hydrochloric acid is a strong acid - virtually 100% ionised. Each
mole of HCl reacts with the water to give 1 mole of hydrogen ions
and 1 mole of chloride ions
That means that if the concentration of the acid is 0.1 mol dm-3,
then the concentration of hydrogen ions is also 0.1 mol dm-3.
Use your calculator to convert this into pH. My calculator wants me
to enter 0.1, and then press the "log" button. Yours might want you
to do it in a different order. You need to find out!
log10 [0.1] = -1
But pH = - log10 [0.1]
- (-1) = 1
The pH of this acid is 1.
Note: If you want more examples to look at and to try
yourself (with fully worked solutions given), you may be
interested in my chemistry calculations book. This also
includes the slightly more confusing problem of converting pH
back into hydrogen ion concentration.

Weak acids
Explaining the term "weak acid"
A weak acid is one which doesn't ionise fully when it is dissolved in
water.
Ethanoic acid is a typical weak acid. It reacts with water to
produce hydroxonium ions and ethanoate ions, but the back
reaction is more successful than the forward one. The ions react
very easily to reform the acid and the water.

At any one time, only about 1% of the ethanoic acid molecules


have converted into ions. The rest remain as simple ethanoic acid
molecules.
Most organic acids are weak. Hydrogen fluoride (dissolving in
water to produce hydrofluoric acid) is a weak inorganic acid that
you may come across elsewhere.

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Note: If you are interested in exploring organic acids further,


you will find them explained elsewhere on the site. It might be
a good idea to read the rest of this page first, though.
If you want to know why hydrogen fluoride is a weak acid, you
can find out by following this link. But beware! The
explanation is very complicated and definitely not for the fainthearted!
These pages are in completely different parts of this site. If
you follow either link, use the BACK button to return to this
current page.

Comparing the strengths of weak acids


The position of equilibrium of the reaction between the acid and
water varies from one weak acid to another. The further to the left it
lies, the weaker the acid is.

Note: If you don't understand about position of equilibrium


follow this link before you go any further.
You are also going to need to know about equilibrium
constants, Kc for homogeneous equilibria. There is no point
in reading any more of this page unless you do!
If you follow either link, use the BACK button to return to this
current page.

The acid dissociation constant, Ka


You can get a measure of the position of an equilibrium by writing
an equilibrium constant for the reaction. The lower the value for the
constant, the more the equilibrium lies to the left.
The dissociation (ionisation) of an acid is an example of a
homogeneous reaction. Everything is present in the same phase in this case, in solution in water. You can therefore write a simple
expression for the equilibrium constant, Kc.
Here is the equilibrium again:

You might expect the equilibrium constant to be written as:

However, if you think about this carefully, there is something odd


about it.
At the bottom of the expression, you have a term for the
concentration of the water in the solution. That's not a problem except that the number is going to be very large compared with all
the other numbers.
In 1 dm3 of solution, there are going to be about 55 moles of water.

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Note: 1 mole of water weighs 18 g. 1 dm3 of solution


contains approximately 1000 g of water. Divide 1000 by 18 to
get approximately 55.

If you had a weak acid with a concentration of about 1 mol dm-3,


and only about 1% of it reacted with the water, the number of
moles of water is only going to fall by about 0.01. In other words, if
the acid is weak the concentration of the water is virtually constant.
In that case, there isn't a lot of point in including it in the expression
as if it were a variable. Instead, a new equilibrium constant is
defined which leaves it out. This new equilibrium constant is called
Ka.

Note: The term for the concentration of water hasn't just


been ignored. What has happened is that the first expression
has been rearranged to give Kc (a constant) times the
concentration of water (another constant) on the left-hand
side. The product of those is then given the name Ka.
You don't need to worry about this unless you really insist! All
you need to do is to learn the format of the expression for Ka.

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You may find the Ka expression written differently if you work from
the simplified version of the equilibrium reaction:

This may be written with or without state symbols.


It is actually exactly the same as the previous expression for Ka!
Remember that although we often write H+ for hydrogen ions in
solution, what we are actually talking about are hydroxonium ions.
This second version of the Ka expression isn't as precise as the
first one, but your examiners may well accept it. Find out!

To take a specific common example, the equilibrium for the


dissociation of ethanoic acid is properly written as:

The Ka expression is:

If you are using the simpler version of the equilibrium . . .

. . . the Ka expression is:

Note: Because you are likely to come across both of these


versions depending on where you read about Ka, you would
be wise to get used to using either. For exam purposes,
though, use whichever your examiners seem to prefer.

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The table shows some values of Ka for some simple acids:

Ka (mol dm-3)

acid
hydrofluoric acid

5.6 x 10-4

methanoic acid

1.6 x 10-4

ethanoic acid

1.7 x 10-5

hydrogen sulphide

8.9 x 10-8

These are all weak acids because the values for Ka are very small.
They are listed in order of decreasing acid strength - the Ka values
get smaller as you go down the table.
However, if you aren't very happy with numbers, that isn't
immediately obvious. Because the numbers are in two parts, there
is too much to think about quickly!
To avoid this, the numbers are often converted into a new, easier
form, called pKa.

An introduction to pKa
pKa bears exactly the same relationship to Ka as pH does to the
hydrogen ion concentration:

If you use your calculator on all the Ka values in the table above and
convert them into pKa values, you get:

acid

Ka (mol dm-3) pKa

hydrofluoric acid

5.6 x 10-4

3.3

methanoic acid

1.6 x 10-4

3.8

ethanoic acid

1.7 x 10-5

4.8

hydrogen sulphide

8.9 x 10-8

7.1

Note: Notice that unlike Ka, pKa doesn't have any units.

Notice that the weaker the acid, the larger the value of pKa. It is
now easy to see the trend towards weaker acids as you go down
the table.

Remember this:
The lower the value for pKa, the stronger the acid.
The higher the value for pKa, the weaker the acid.

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Note: If you need to know about Ka and pKa, you are quite
likely to need to be able to do calculations with them. You
will probably need to be able to calculate the pH of a weak
acid from its concentration and Ka or pKa. You may need to
reverse this and calculate a value for pKa from pH and
concentration. I can't help you with these calculations on this
site, but they are all covered in detail in my chemistry
calculations book.

Questions to test your understanding


If this is the first set of questions you have done, please read the
introductory page before you start. You will need to use the BACK BUTTON
on your browser to come back here afterwards.
questions on strong and weak acids
answers

Where would you like to go now?


To the acid-base equilibria menu . . .
To the Physical Chemistry menu . . .
To Main Menu . . .

Jim Clark 2002 (modified November 2013)

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