Relative Strengths of Conjugate Acid-Base Pairs

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The diagram shows two horizontal bars. The first, labeled, “Relative acid strength,” at the top is red on the left and gradually changes to purple on the right. The red end at the left is labeled, “Stronger acids.” The purple end at the right is labeled, “Weaker acids.” Just outside the bar to the lower left is the label, “K subscript a.” The bar is marked off in increments with a specific acid listed above each increment. The first mark is at 1.0 with H subscript 3 O superscript positive sign. The second is ten raised to the negative two with H C l O subscript 2. The third is ten raised to the negative 4 with H F. The fourth is ten raised to the negative 6 with H subscript 2 C O subscript 3. The fifth is ten raised to a negative 8 with C H subscript 3 C O O H. The sixth is ten raised to the negative ten with N H subscript 4 superscript positive sign. The seventh is ten raised to a negative 12 with H P O subscript 4 superscript 2 negative sign. The eighth is ten raised to the negative 14 with H subscript 2 O. Similarly the second bar, which is labeled “Relative conjugate base strength,” is purple at the left end and gradually becomes blue at the right end. Outside the bar to the left is the label, “Weaker bases.” Outside the bar to the right is the label, “Stronger bases.” Below and to the left of the bar is the label, “K subscript b.” The bar is similarly marked at increments with bases listed above each increment. The first is at ten raised to the negative 14 with H subscript 2 O above it. The second is ten raised to the negative 12 C l O subscript 2 superscript negative sign. The third is ten raised to the negative ten with F superscript negative sign. The fourth is ten raised to a negative eight with H C O subscript 3 superscript negative sign. The fifth is ten raised to the negative 6 with C H subscript 3 C O O superscript negative sign. The sixth is ten raised to the negative 4 with N H subscript 3. The seventh is ten raised to the negative 2 with P O subscript 4 superscript three negative sign. The eighth is 1.0 with O H superscript negative sign.
Figure 1. Relative strengths of several conjugate acid-base pairs are shown. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Relative Strengths of Conjugate Acid-Base Pairs (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

Brønsted-Lowry acid-base chemistry is the transfer of protons; thus, logic suggests a relation between the relative strengths of conjugate acid-base pairs. The strength of an acid or base is quantified in its ionization constant, Ka or Kb, which represents the extent of the acid or base ionization reaction. For the conjugate acid-base pair HA / A, ionization equilibrium equations and ionization constant expressions are

Adding these two chemical equations yields the equation for the autoionization for water:

The equilibrium constant for a summed reaction is equal to the mathematical product of the equilibrium constants for the added reactions, and so

This equation states the relation between ionization constants for any conjugate acid-base pair, namely, their mathematical product is equal to the ion product of water, Kw. By rearranging this equation, a reciprocal relation between the strengths of a conjugate acid-base pair becomes evident:

The inverse proportional relation between Ka and Kb means the stronger the acid or base, the weaker its conjugate partner. Figure 1 illustrates this relation for several conjugate acid-base pairs.

This figure includes a table separated into a left half which is labeled “Acids” and a right half labeled “Bases.” A red arrow points up the left side, which is labeled “Increasing acid strength.” Similarly, a blue arrow points downward along the right side, which is labeled “Increasing base strength.” Names of acids and bases are listed next to each arrow toward the center of the table, followed by chemical formulas. Acids listed top to bottom are sulfuric acid, H subscript 2 S O subscript 4, hydrogen iodide, H I, hydrogen bromide, H B r, hydrogen chloride, H C l, nitric acid, H N O subscript 3, hydronium ion ( in pink text) H subscript 3 O superscript plus, hydrogen sulfate ion, H S O subscript 4 superscript negative, phosphoric acid, H subscript 3 P O subscript 4, hydrogen fluoride, H F, nitrous acid, H N O subscript 2, acetic acid, C H subscript 3 C O subscript 2 H, carbonic acid H subscript 2 C O subscript 3, hydrogen sulfide, H subscript 2 S, ammonium ion, N H subscript 4 superscript +, hydrogen cyanide, H C N, hydrogen carbonate ion, H C O subscript 3 superscript negative, water (shaded in beige) H subscript 2 O, hydrogen sulfide ion, H S superscript negative, ethanol, C subscript 2 H subscript 5 O H, ammonia, N H subscript 3, hydrogen, H subscript 2, methane, and C H subscript 4. The acids at the top of the listing from sulfuric acid through nitric acid are grouped with a bracket to the right labeled “Undergo complete acid ionization in water.” Similarly, the acids at the bottom from hydrogen sulfide ion through methane are grouped with a bracket and labeled, “Do not undergo acid ionization in water.” The right half of the figure lists bases and formulas. From top to bottom the bases listed are hydrogen sulfate ion, H S O subscript 4 superscript negative, iodide ion, I superscript negative, bromide ion, B r superscript negative, chloride ion, C l superscript negative, nitrate ion, N O subscript 3 superscript negative, water (shaded in beige), H subscript 2 O, sulfate ion, S O subscript 4 superscript 2 negative, dihydrogen phosphate ion, H subscript 2 P O subscript 4 superscript negative, fluoride ion, F superscript negative, nitrite ion, N O subscript 2 superscript negative, acetate ion, C H subscript 3 C O subscript 2 superscript negative, hydrogen carbonate ion, H C O subscript 3 superscript negative, hydrogen sulfide ion, H S superscript negative, ammonia, N H subscript 3, cyanide ion, C N superscript negative, carbonate ion, C O subscript 3 superscript 2 negative, hydroxide ion (in blue), O H superscript negative, sulfide ion, S superscript 2 negative, ethoxide ion, C subscript 2 H subscript 5 O superscript negative, amide ion N H subscript 2 superscript negative, hydride ion, H superscript negative, and methide ion C H subscript 3 superscript negative. The bases at the top, from perchlorate ion through nitrate ion are group with a bracket which is labeled “Do not undergo base ionization in water.” Similarly, the lower 5 in the listing, from sulfide ion through methide ion are grouped and labeled “Undergo complete base ionization in water.”
Figure 2. This figure shows the strengths of conjugate acid-base pairs relative to the strength of water as the reference substance. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The listing of conjugate acid–base pairs shown in Figure 2 is arranged to show the relative strength of each species as compared with water, whose entries are highlighted in each of the table’s columns. In the acid column, those species listed below water are weaker acids than water. These species do not undergo acid ionization in water; they are not Bronsted-Lowry acids. All the species listed above water are stronger acids, transferring protons to water to some extent when dissolved in an aqueous solution to generate hydronium ions. Species above water but below hydronium ion are weak acids, undergoing partial acid ionization, wheres those above hydronium ion are strong acids that are completely ionized in aqueous solution.

If all these strong acids are completely ionized in water, why does the column indicate they vary in strength, with nitric acid being the weakest and perchloric acid the strongest? Notice that the sole acid species present in an aqueous solution of any strong acid is H3O+(aq), meaning that hydronium ion is the strongest acid that may exist in water; any stronger acid will react completely with water to generate hydronium ions. This limit on the acid strength of solutes in a solution is called a leveling effect. To measure the differences in acid strength for “strong” acids, the acids must be dissolved in a solvent that is less basic than water. In such solvents, the acids will be “weak,” and so any differences in the extent of their ionization can be determined. For example, the binary hydrogen halides HCl, HBr, and HI are strong acids in water but weak acids in ethanol (strength increasing HCl < HBr < HI).

The right column of Figure 2 lists a number of substances in order of increasing base strength from top to bottom. Following the same logic as for the left column, species listed above water are weaker bases and so they don’t undergo base ionization when dissolved in water. Species listed between water and its conjugate base, hydroxide ion, are weak bases that partially ionize. Species listed below hydroxide ion are strong bases that completely ionize in water to yield hydroxide ions (i.e., they are leveled to hydroxide). A comparison of the acid and base columns in this table supports the reciprocal relation between the strengths of conjugate acid-base pairs. For example, the conjugate bases of the strong acids (top of table) are all of negligible strength. A strong acid exhibits an immeasurably large Ka, and so its conjugate base will exhibit a Kb that is essentially zero:

A similar approach can be used to support the observation that conjugate acids of strong bases (Kb ≈ ∞) are of negligible strength (Ka ≈ 0).

Source:

Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/books/chemistry-2e

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