In chemistry, the Brønsted-Lowry theory is an acid-base theory, independently proposed by Johannes Nicolaus Brønsted and Thomas Martin Lowry in 1923. In this system, acids and bases are defined as follows: an acid is any species that is able to donate a hydrogen cation (H+, a proton); a base is any species with the ability to accept a hydrogen cation (H+). To that end, if a compound is to behave as an acid by donating a proton, there must be a base to accept that proton; the Brønsted-Lowry concept is therefore defined by the reaction:
acid + base ⇌ conjugate base + conjugate acid
The conjugate base is the ion or molecule that remains after the acid has donated its proton, and the conjugate acid is the species created after the base accepts the proton. The reaction can proceed either forward backward; in each case, the acid donates a proton to the base.
Advantages of Brønsted-Lowry Theory
The Brønsted-Lowry acid-base theory has several advantages over the Arrhenius theory. Recall that the Arrhenius theory defines an acid as any species that increases the concentration of H+/H3O+ in solution. Consider the following reactions of acetic acid (CH3COOH), the organic acid that gives vinegar its characteristic taste:
1. CH3COOH + H2O ⇌ CH3COO- + H3O+
2. CH3COOH + NH3 ⇌ CH3COO- + NH4+
Both theories easily describe the first reaction: CH3COOH acts as an Arrhenius acid because it acts as a source of H3O+ when dissolved in water, and it acts as a Brønsted acid by donating a proton to water. In the second example CH3COOH undergoes the same transformation, in this case donating a proton to ammonia (NH3); this cannot be described using the Arrhenius definition of an acid, however, because the reaction does not produce H3O+.
Amphoterism of Water
Water is amphoteric, which means it can act as either an acid or a base. In the reaction between acetic acid, CH3CO2H, and water, H2O, water acts as a base. The acetate ion CH3CO2- is the conjugate base of acetic acid, and the hydronium ion H3O+ is the conjugate acid of the base, water:
CH3COOH + H2O ⇌ CH3COO- + H3O+
Water can also act as an acid, as when it reacts with ammonia. The equation given for this reaction is:
H2O + NH3 ⇌ OH- + NH4+
Here, H2O donates a proton to NH3. The hydroxide ion is the conjugate base of water, which acts as an acid, and the ammonium ion is the conjugate acid of the base, ammonia.