Work published in the Royal Society of Chemistry with the support of the Helmholtz Association through the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science at DESY, MAX IV Laboratory, Lund University, Sweden, European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 and the Academy of Finland.
Remember doing titrations in chemistry class? Adding acid drop-by-drop to the beaker and the moment you took your eye off it the solution completely changed colour.
We learned in chemistry that by doing this titration, we were actually affecting an important equilibrium in the beaker between acids and bases. This equilibrium was first described at the turn of the 20th century by American biochemist Lawrence Henderson and modified by Karl Hasselbalch giving us the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation. The discovery and subsequent study of acids and bases using this equation has led to the discovery of many important phenomena in the natural world from as how cells function to how materials are formed.
However, after years of study, an idea arose that questioned the validity of the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation, what happens at the surface? If you have a beaker filled with a dilute acid, what happens at the very top atomic layer? The top layer of a liquid in a beaker is special for many reasons, but if you’re a dissolved molecule, it means that you’re no longer surrounded by water on all sides. For hydrophobic molecules, this means that it is favourable to be at the surface. With this in mind, the scientists took another look at the Henderson-Hasselbalch equilibrium equation and thought that it couldn’t work at the surface. Many studies have measured indicator chemical species, and determined that the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation does not seem to apply at the surface, and concluded that the concentration of hydronium or hydroxide ions, which determines the acidity/basicity, is different at the air-liquid interface than in the bulk.