Sulfuric acid is one of the most corrosive mineral acids used in the laboratory environment. It’s a pungent and ethereal liquid that tends to be colorless or slightly yellow and is soluble in water at all concentrations. It’s a hazardous substance that’s often dyed dark brown during production to alert people. Many people recognize it by its characteristic smell – it’s one of the most common substances used for experiments at school chemistry labs. Sulfuric acid has many uses in both laboratory and out-of-laboratory environment. What properties does the it actually have and what is it used for in labs?
Laboratory uses of sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid shows different properties depending on its concentration, however, there are few features that are common in all its forms. Sulfur is highly corrosive on metals, living tissues and stones, which is mainly due to its acid nature. Highly concentrated, sulfuric acid can act as a strong dehydrating and oxidising agent. It’s also hygroscopic and readily absorbs water vapour from the air. One of the most common reactions using sulfuric acid is its dilution in water. One rule to remember here is to add the concentrated acid to water and not the other way around – the heat produced by the water added to acid would cause splattering and be hazardous to people and surroundings. Sulfuric acid is widely used in industrial productions and common in detergents, pharmaceuticals, petroleum catalysts and antifreeze. It’s also used for oil well acidizing, aluminium reduction, paper sizing, printing inks, production of explosives etc.
Sulfuric acid is a dangerous substance. When at a high concentration, it can cause chemical burns as well as secondary thermal burns through dehydration. It can lead to blindness if splashed onto eyes and irreversible damage if swallowed. Working with sulfuric acid in laboratory environment it is necessary to wear protective equipment and always watch out for any spillage and possible contact with the substance. The hazards, however, don’t end with the dangers of acid to skin contact. It’s strong oxidising properties make the sulfuric acid highly corrosive to many metals and other materials. Because of that, it must be stored carefully in containers made of nonreactive materials such as glass and all reactions and experiments conducted with the use of sulfuric acid must be done so in glassware.
When used properly, sulfuric acid is an important substance in chemical industry and laboratories. However, remembering its properties, it’s crucial to remember about the hazards it poses to living flesh and other materials and treat it with extreme caution.