The surface of neat water is basic

Faraday Discuss. 2009;141:31-9; discussion 81-98. doi: 10.1039/b805266b.


Theoretical studies which conclude that the surface of neat water is acidic (with a pH < or = 4.8), due to the preferential adsorption of hydronium ions, are contrary to the available experimental evidence. Air bubbles in water have a negative charge, as do hydrophobic oil drops in water, and streaming potential measurements on inert surfaces such as Teflon in water show a similar negative surface charge. In each case the pH dependence of the zeta potential has an isoelectric point between pH 2-4. An isoelectric point of pH 4 implies a preference for hydroxide over protons of 10(6), the opposite of what was inferred from the theoretical simulations. Water behaves similarly at all inert hydrophobic interfaces with the preferential adsorption of hydroxide ions to give a negatively charged surface at neutral pH. The surface-charge density at the oil/water interface in mM salt solutions is -5 to -7 microC cm(-2), which corresponds to one hydroxide ion on every 3 nm2 of the surface. The homogenisation of an inert oil such as hexadecane in water in the absence of any salt or base still leads to formation of an emulsion. The hydroxide adsorbed on the large surface area of the emulsion greatly exceeds that present at 10(-7) M in neutral water; it is created by the increased autolysis of water, driven by the strong adsorption of hydroxide ions at the oil/water interface. These surfactant-free, salt-free emulsions are stable for some hours, with protons as the only counterions to the negative hydroxide surface.