acids and bases
There are three theories that identify a singular characteristic which defines an acid and a base: the Arrhenius theory, for which the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in chemistry; the Brönsted-Lowry, or proton donor, theory, advanced in 1923; and the Lewis, or electron-pair, theory, which was also presented in 1923. Each of the three theories has its own advantages and disadvantages; each is useful under certain conditions.The Arrhenius Theory
When an acid or base dissolves in water, a certain percentage of the acid or base particles will break up, or dissociate (see dissociation), into oppositely charged ions. The Arrhenius theory defines an acid as a compound that can dissociate in water to yield hydrogen ions, H+, and a base as a compound that can dissociate in water to yield hydroxide ions, OH -  . For example, hydrochloric acid, HCl, dissociates in water to yield the required hydrogen ions, H+, and also chloride ions, Cl -  . The base sodium hydroxide, NaOH, dissociates in water to yield the required hydroxide ions, OH - , and also sodium ions, Na+.
Some substances act as acids or bases when they are dissolved in solvents other than water, such as liquid ammonia. The Brönsted-Lowry theory, named for the Danish chemist Johannes Brönsted and the British chemist Thomas Lowry, provides a more general definition of acids and bases that can be used to deal both with solutions that contain no water and solutions that contain water. It defines an acid as a proton donor and a base as a proton acceptor. In the Brönsted-Lowry theory, water, H2O, can be considered an acid or a base since it can lose a proton to form a hydroxide ion, OH - , or accept a proton to form a hydronium ion, H3O+ (see amphoterism). When an acid loses a proton, the remaining species can be a proton acceptor and is called the conjugate base of the acid. Similarly when a base accepts a proton, the resulting species can be a proton donor and is called the conjugate acid of that base. For example, when a water molecule loses a proton to form a hydroxide ion, the hydroxide ion can be considered the conjugate base of the acid, water. When a water molecule accepts a proton to form a hydronium ion, the hydronium ion can be considered the conjugate acid of the base, water.
Another theory that provides a very broad definition of acids and bases has been put forth by the American chemist Gilbert Lewis. The Lewis theory defines an acid as a compound that can accept a pair of electrons and a base as a compound that can donate a pair of electrons. Boron trifluoride, BF3, can be considered a Lewis acid and ethyl alcohol can be considered a Lewis base.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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