The equation for calculating pH was proposed in 1909 by Danish biochemist Søren Peter Lauritz Sørensen:
where log is the base-10 logarithm and [H+] stands for the hydrogen ion concentration in units of moles per liter solution. The term "pH" comes from the German word "potenz," which means "power," combined with H, the element symbol for hydrogen, so pH is an abbreviation for "power of hydrogen."
Examples of pH Values of Common Chemicals
We work with many acids (low pH) and bases (high pH) every day. Examples of pH values of lab chemicals and household products include:
0: hydrochloric acid
2.0: lemon juice
7.0: pure water (neutral)
7.4: human blood
14.0: sodium hydroxide
Not All Liquids Have a pH Value
pH only has meaning in an aqueous solution (in water). Many chemicals, including liquids, do not have pH values. If there's no water, there's no pH. For example, there is no pH value for vegetable oil, gasoline, or pure alcohol.
IUPAC Definition of pH
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has a slightly different pH scale that is based on electrochemical measurements of a standard buffer solution. Essentially, the definition uses the equation:
where aH+ stands for hydrogen activity, which is the effective concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. This might be slightly different from the true concentration. The IUPAC pH scale also includes thermodynamic factors, which may influence pH.
For most situations, the standard pH definition is sufficient.
How pH Is Measured
Rough pH measurements can be made using litmus paper or another type of pH paper known to change colors around a certain pH value. Most indicators and pH papers are useful only to tell whether a substance is an acid or a base or to identify pH within a narrow range. A universal indicator is a mixture of indicator solutions intended to provide a color change over a pH range of 2 to 10.
More accurate measurements are made using primary standards to calibrate a glass electrode and pH meter. The electrode works by measuring the potential difference between a hydrogen electrode and a standard electrode. An example of a standard electrode is silver chloride.
Uses of pH
pH is used in everyday life as well as science and industry. It's used in cooking (e.g., reacting baking powder and an acid to make baked goods rise), to design cocktails, in cleaners, and in food preservation. It's important in pool maintenance and water purification, agriculture, medicine, chemistry, engineering, oceanography, biology, and other sciences.
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