What is an Acid?

One of the first things you will encounter in organic chemistry is the concept of acids and bases. So what are they?

Acids are the unstable union between a hydrogen atom (H) and an atom greedy for electrons, such as Fluorine (F). When atoms form bonds with one another they share electrons, like different apps on your phone share battery power. This bond would look like this: (H-F). You can imagine an H atom as a phone app with virtually no demand on your battery life, like your phone’s calendar when it is unopened. Conversely, an F atom can be imagined to be as demanding as a three-way FaceTime call to outer-space. The result of this electronic disparity is a molecule where almost all the power is concentrated in the F atom.

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So great is Fluorine’s greed, it desires to possess even the minuscule amount of charge that the H atom holds. It looks upon H with disgust. “You’re useless to me. Who even put you here?”, asks F. (Answer: Humans put it there. These strong acids are too reactive to exist commonly in Nature). In a display of self-indulgence, the F atom yanks back its bond from H, and the poor H atom is cast away, alone in this universe.

This solitary H is so desperate for electrons, it will bond with almost anything. In fact, it will eagerly re-arrange the decorating of the proteins comprising your skin, or chew through the wall of a glass beaker. But not all is so bleak for H. Sometimes, its partner is less greedy than F, and with a little love, it becomes less violent when it is asked to leave. Consider citric acid, where H is bound to Oxygen, connected to Carbon and a whole bunch of friends who know the importance of sharing. The H on this acid is gentle enough that you can enjoy it in the morning in your orange juice.

Next time: Bases

by Andrew Monnone, Paper Engineering, 2016




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