By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the composition and function of acid–base buffers
  • Calculate the pH of a buffer before and after the addition of added acid or base

A solution containing appreciable amounts of a weak conjugate acid-base pair is called a buffer solution, or a buffer. Buffer solutions resist a change in pH when small amounts of a strong acid or a strong base are added. A solution of acetic acid and sodium acetate (CH3COOH + CH3COONa) is an example of a buffer that consists of a weak acid and its salt. An example of a buffer that consists of a weak base and its salt is a solution of ammonia and ammonium chloride (NH3(aq) + NH4Cl(aq)).

(a) The unbuffered solution on the left and the buffered solution on the right have the same pH (pH 8); they are basic, showing the yellow color of the indicator methyl orange at this pH. (b) After the addition of 1 mL of a 0.01-M HCl solution, the buffered solution has not detectably changed its pH but the unbuffered solution has become acidic, as indicated by the change in color of the methyl orange, which turns red at a pH of about 4. (credit: modification of work by Mark Ott)