Carbonic acid

Not to be confused with Carbolic acid, an antiquated name for phenol.
Carbonic acid is also an archaic name for carbon dioxide.
Carbonic acid
Preferred IUPAC name
Carbonic acid[1]
Other names
Carbon dioxide solution
Dihydrogen carbonate
Acid of air
Aerial acid
Hydroxymethanoic acid
463-79-6 YesY
3D model (Jmol) Interactive image
ChEBI CHEBI:28976 YesY
ChEMBL ChEMBL1161632 YesY
ChemSpider 747 YesY
ECHA InfoCard 100.133.015
KEGG C01353 YesY
Molar mass 62.03 g/mol
Density 1.668 g/cm3
Exists only in solution
Acidity (pKa) 3.6 (pKa1 for H2CO3 only), 6.3 (pKa1 including CO2(aq)), 10.32 (pKa2)
Related compounds
Related compounds
Carbonyl fluoride
Except where otherwise noted, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C [77 °F], 100 kPa).
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Infobox references

Carbonic acid is a chemical compound with the chemical formula H2CO3 (equivalently OC(OH)2). It is also a name sometimes given to solutions of carbon dioxide in water (carbonated water), because such solutions contain small amounts of H2CO3. In physiology, carbonic acid is described as volatile acid or respiratory acid, because it is the only acid excreted as a gas by the lungs.[2] It plays an important role in the bicarbonate buffer system to maintain acid–base homeostasis.

Carbonic acid, which is a weak acid, forms two kinds of salts, the carbonates and the bicarbonates. In geology, carbonic acid causes limestone to dissolve producing calcium bicarbonate which leads to many limestone features such as stalactites and stalagmites.

The long-held belief that carbonic acid could not exist as a pure compound was disproved, in 1993, by the preparation of the pure substance.[3] This was independently confirmed in 2011.[4]

Chemical equilibrium

When carbon dioxide dissolves in water it exists in chemical equilibrium producing carbonic acid:[5]

CO2 + H2O H2CO3

The hydration equilibrium constant at 25 °C is called Kh, which in the case of carbonic acid is [H2CO3]/[CO2] ≈ 1.7×10−3 in pure water[6] and ≈ 1.2×10−3 in seawater.[7] Hence, the majority of the carbon dioxide is not converted into carbonic acid, remaining as CO2 molecules. In the absence of a catalyst, the equilibrium is reached quite slowly. The rate constants are 0.039 s−1 for the forward reaction (CO2 + H2O → H2CO3) and 23 s−1 for the reverse reaction (H2CO3 → CO2 + H2O). Carbonic acid is used in the making of soft drinks, inexpensive and artificially carbonated sparkling wines, and other bubbly drinks. The addition of two molecules of water to CO2 would give orthocarbonic acid, C(OH)4, which exists only in minute amounts in aqueous solution.

Addition of base to an excess of carbonic acid gives bicarbonate (hydrogen carbonate). With excess base, carbonic acid reacts to give carbonate salts.

Because carbon dioxide is non-polar, it cannot dissolve in the bloodstream to travel to the lungs. As such, carbonic anhydrase converts carbon dioxide and water into carbonic acid, which is polar and thus can travel through the body. In the lungs, carbonic anhydrase converts carbonic acid back into water and carbon dioxide to expel carbon dioxide through the lungs without losing water.

Role of carbonic acid in blood

Carbonic acid is an intermediate step on the transport of CO2 out of the body via respiratory gas exchange. The hydration reaction of CO2 is generally very slow in the absence of a catalyst, but red blood cells contain carbonic anhydrase, which both increases the reaction rate and dissociates a hydrogen ion (H+) from the resulting carbonic acid, leaving bicarbonate (HCO3) dissolved in the blood plasma. This catalysed reaction is reversed in the lungs, where it converts the bicarbonate back into CO2 and allows it to be expelled. This equilibration plays an important role as a buffer in mammalian blood.[8] A 2016 theoretical report suggests that carbonic acid may have pivotal role in protonating various nitrogen bases in blood serum.[9]

Role of carbonic acid in ocean chemistry

The oceans of the world have absorbed almost half of the CO2 emitted by humans from the burning of fossil fuels.[10]  It has been theorized that the extra dissolved carbon dioxide has caused the ocean's average surface pH to shift by about 0.1 unit from pre-industrial levels. This theory is known as ocean acidification.[11]

Acidity of carbonic acid

Carbonic acid is one of the polyprotic acids: It is diprotic  it has two protons, which may dissociate from the parent molecule. Thus, there are two dissociation constants, the first one for the dissociation into the bicarbonate (also called hydrogen carbonate) ion HCO3:

H2CO3 HCO3 + H+
Ka1 = 2.5×10−4;[5] pKa1 = 3.6 at 25 °C.

Care must be taken when quoting and using the first dissociation constant of carbonic acid. In aqueous solution, carbonic acid exists in equilibrium with carbon dioxide, and the concentration of H2CO3 is much lower than the concentration of CO2. In many analyses, H2CO3 includes dissolved CO2 (referred to as CO2(aq)), H2CO3* is used to represent the two species when writing the aqueous chemical equilibrium equation. The equation may be rewritten as follows:[5]

H2CO3* HCO3 + H+
Ka(app) = 4.47×10−7; pK(app) = 6.35 at 25 °C and ionic strength = 0.0

Whereas this apparent pKa is quoted as the dissociation constant of carbonic acid, it is ambiguous: it might better be referred to as the acidity constant of dissolved carbon dioxide, as it is particularly useful for calculating the pH of CO2-containing solutions. A similar situation applies to sulfurous acid (H2SO3), which exists in equilibrium with substantial amounts of unhydrated sulfur dioxide.

The second constant is for the dissociation of the bicarbonate ion into the carbonate ion CO32−:

HCO3 CO32− + H+
Ka2 = 4.69×10−11; pKa2 = 10.329 at 25 °C and ionic strength = 0.0

The three acidity constants are defined as follows:

pH and composition of carbonic acid solutions

At a given temperature, the composition of a pure carbonic acid solution (or of a pure CO2 solution) is completely determined by the partial pressure of carbon dioxide above the solution. To calculate this composition, account must be taken of the above equilibria between the three different carbonate forms (H2CO3, HCO3 and CO32−) as well as of the hydration equilibrium between dissolved CO2 and H2CO3 with constant (see above) and of the following equilibrium between the dissolved CO2 and the gaseous CO2 above the solution:

CO2(gas) CO2(dissolved) with where kH = 29.76 atm/(mol/L) (Henry constant) at 25 °C.

The corresponding equilibrium equations together with the relation and the charge neutrality condition result in six equations for the six unknowns [CO2], [H2CO3], [H+], [OH], [HCO3] and [CO32], showing that the composition of the solution is fully determined by . The equation obtained for [H+] is a cubic whose numerical solution yields the following values for the pH and the different species concentrations:

pH [CO2]
10−8 7.00 3.36 × 10−10 5.71 × 10−13 1.42 × 109 7.90 × 10−13
10−7 6.94 3.36 × 109 5.71 × 10−12 5.90 × 109 1.90 × 10−12
10−6 6.81 3.36 × 108 5.71 × 10−11 9.16 × 108 3.30 × 10−11
10−5 6.42 3.36 × 107 5.71 × 10−10 3.78 × 107 4.53 × 10−11
10−4 5.92 3.36 × 106 5.71 × 109 1.19 × 106 5.57 × 10−11
3.5 × 10−4 5.65 1.18 × 105 2.00 × 108 2.23 × 106 5.60 × 10−11
10−3 5.42 3.36 × 105 5.71 × 108 3.78 × 106 5.61 × 10−11
10−2 4.92 3.36 × 104 5.71 × 107 1.19 × 105 5.61 × 10−11
10−1 4.42 3.36 × 103 5.71 × 106 3.78 × 105 5.61 × 10−11
100 3.92 3.36 × 102 5.71 × 105 1.20 × 104 5.61 × 10−11
2.5 × 100 3.72 8.40 × 102 1.43 × 104 1.89 × 104 5.61 × 10−11
101 3.42 3.36 × 101 5.71 × 104 3.78 × 104 5.61 × 10−11

As noted above, [CO32] may be neglected for this specific problem, resulting in the following very precise analytical expression for [H+]:

Spectroscopic studies of carbonic acid

Theoretical calculations show that the presence of even a single molecule of water causes carbonic acid to revert to carbon dioxide and water. In the absence of water, the dissociation of gaseous carbonic acid is predicted to be very slow, with a half-life of 180,000 years.[12] This may only apply to isolated carbonic acid molecules, however, as it has been predicted to catalyze its own decomposition.[13]

The longstanding belief was that pure carbonic acid cannot be obtained at room temperatures (about 20 °C, or about 70 °F) due to its catalytic destruction by water.[12] It has been discovered that it can be generated by exposing a frozen mixture of water and carbon dioxide to high-energy radiation and then warming to remove the excess water. The carbonic acid that remains is characterized by infrared spectroscopy. The fact that the carbonic acid was prepared by irradiating a solid H2O + CO2 mixture may suggest that H2CO3 might be found in outer space, where frozen ices of H2O and CO2 are common, as are cosmic rays and ultraviolet light, to help them react.[12] The same carbonic acid polymorph (denoted beta-carbonic acid) was prepared by heating alternating layers of glassy aqueous solutions of bicarbonate and acid in vacuum, which causes protonation of bicarbonate, followed by removal of the solvent. The previously suggested alpha-carbonic acid, which was prepared by the same technique using methanol rather than water as a solvent was shown to be a monomethyl ester CH3OCOOH.[14]

See also


  1. Nomenclature of Organic Chemistry : IUPAC Recommendations and Preferred Names 2013 (Blue Book). Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry. 2014. pp. 414, 781. doi:10.1039/9781849733069-FP001. ISBN 978-0-85404-182-4.
  2. Acid-Base Physiology 2.1 - Acid-Base Balance by Kerry Brandis
  3. Hage, W.; Hallbrucker, A.; Mayer, E. (1993). "Carbonic Acid: Synthesis by Protonation of Bicarbonate and Ftir Spectroscopic Characterization Via a New Cryogenic Technique". J. Am. Chem. Soc. 115 (18): 8427–8431. doi:10.1021/ja00071a061.
  4. "International first: Gas-phase carbonic acid isolated",, Jan 11, 2011
  5. 1 2 3 Greenwood, Norman N.; Earnshaw, Alan (1997). Chemistry of the Elements (2nd ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 310. ISBN 0-08-037941-9.
  6. Housecroft and Sharpe, Inorganic Chemistry, 2nd ed, Prentice-Pearson-Hall 2005, p.368.
  7. Soli, A.L.; R.H. Byrne (2002). "CO2 system hydration and dehydration kinetics and the equilibrium CO2/H2CO3 ratio in aqueous NaCl solution". Marine chemistry. 78 (2–3): 65–73. doi:10.1016/S0304-4203(02)00010-5.
  8. "excretion." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010.
  9. "Reaction Mechanism for Direct Proton Transfer from Carbonic Acid to a Strong Base in Aqueous Solution I: Acid and Base Coordinate and Charge Dynamics", S. Daschakraborty, P. M. Kiefer, Y. Miller, Y. Motro, D. Pines, E. Pines, and J. T. Hynes. J. Phys. Chem. B (2016), 120, 2271.
  10. Sabine, C.L.; et al. (2004). "The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2". Science. 305 (5682): 367–371. doi:10.1126/science.1097403. PMID 15256665. Archived from " the original on July 6, 2008.
  11. National Research Council. "Summary." Ocean Acidification: A National Strategy to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Ocean. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010. 1. Print.
  12. 1 2 3 Loerting, T.; Tautermann, C.; Kroemer, R. T.; Kohl, I.; Hallbrucker, E.; Mayer, A.; Liedl, K. R. (2000). "On the Surprising Kinetic Stability of Carbonic Acid". Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 39 (5): 891–895. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1521-3773(20000303)39:5<891::AID-ANIE891>3.0.CO;2-E. PMID 10760883.
  13. de Marothy, S. A. (2013). "Autocatalytic decomposition of carbonic acid". Int. J. Quantum Chem. 113 (20): 2306–2311. doi:10.1002/qua.24452. Retrieved 19 January 2015.
  14. Reisenauer, H. P.; Wagner, J. P.; Schreiner, P. R. (2014). "Gas-Phase Preparation of Carbonic Acid and Its Monomethyl Ester". Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 53 (44): 11766–11771. doi:10.1002/anie.201406969.

Further reading

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