Alkali

In chemistry, an alkali is a specific type of base, formed as a carbonate, hydroxide or other basic (pH greater than 7) ionic salt of an alkali metal or alkali earth metal element. The word alkali or the adjective alkaline are frequently used to refer to all bases, since most common bases are alkalis, although strictly speaking this is inaccurate.

Common properties of alkalis

Alkalis are all Arrhenius bases and share many properties with other chemicals in this group (Arrhenius bases form hydroxide ions when dissolved in water). Common properties of alkaline solutions include:

- All alkalis have a pH greater than seven and hence can be detected with litmus paper (litmus will turn blue on contact with an alkali).
- Most alkalis have a pH of 10 or greater. This means that they will turn phenolphthalein from colorless to pink.
- Caustic (causing chemical burns).
- Alkaline solutions are slippery or soapy to the touch (due to the caustic reaction dissolving the surface of the skin and fingerprint).
- Alkalis normally form aqueous solutions (although some like barium carbonate are only soluble when reacting with an acidic aqueous solution).

Confusion between base and alkali

The terms "base" and "alkali" are often used interchangeably, since most common bases are alkalis. It is common to speak of "measuring the alkalinity of soil" when what is actually meant is the measurement of the pH (base property). Similarly, bases which are not alkalis, such as ammonia, are sometimes erroneously referred to as alkaline.

Note that not all or even most salts formed by alkali metals are alkaline; this designation applies only to those salts which are basic.

While most electropositive metal oxides are basic, only the soluble alkali metal and alkali earth metal oxides can be correctly called alkalis.

This definition of an alkali as the salt of an alkali metal or alkali earth metal does appear to be the most common, based on dictionary definitions , however conflicting definitions of the term alkali do exist. These include:

- Any base that is water soluble . This is more accurately called an Arrhenius base.
- The solution of a base in water .

Alkali salts

Most basic salts are alkali salts, of which common examples are:

- sodium hydroxide (often called "caustic soda")
- potassium hydroxide (commonly called "potash")
- lye (generic term, for either of the previous two, or even for a mixture)
- calcium carbonate (sometimes called "free lime")

Alkaline soil

Soil with a pH above 7.4 is normally referred to as alkaline. This soil property can occur naturally, due to the presence of alkali salts. Although some plants do prefer slightly basic soil (including cabbage family vegetables and buffalograss), most plants prefer a mildly acidic soil (pH between 6.0 and 6.8), and high pH levels can cause a problem.

In alkali lakes (a type of salt lake), evaporation concentrates the naturally occurring alkali salts, often forming a crust of mildly basic salt across a large area.

Examples of alkali lakes:

- Redberry Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada.
- Tramping Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Etymology

The word "alkali" is derived from Arabic - "the calcined ashes", referring to the original source of alkaline substance. Ashes were used in conjunction with animal fat to produce soap, a process known as saponification.

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