Anions dramatically enhance proton transfer through aqueous interfaces

Himanshu Mishra, Shinichi Enami, Robert J. Nielsen, Michael R. Hoffmann, William A. Goddard, Agustín J. Colussi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Proton transfer (PT) through and across aqueous interfaces is a fundamental process in chemistry and biology. Notwithstanding its importance, it is not generally realized that interfacial PT is quite different from conventional PT in bulk water. Here we show that, in contrast with the behavior of strong nitric acid in aqueous solution, gas-phase HNO3 does not dissociate upon collision with the surface of water unless a few ions (>1 per 106 H2O) are present. By applying online electrospray ionization mass spectrometry to monitor in situ the surface of aqueous jets exposed to HNO 3(g)beams we found that NO3- production increases dramatically on >30-μM inert electrolyte solutions. We also performed quantum mechanical calculations confirming that the sizable barrier hindering HNO3 dissociation on the surface of small water clusters is drastically lowered in the presence of anions. Anions electrostatically assist in drawing the proton away from NO3- lingering outside the cluster, whose incorporation is hampered by the energetic cost of opening a cavity therein. Present results provide both direct experimental evidence and mechanistic insights on the counterintuitive slowness of PT at water-hydrophobe boundaries and its remarkable sensitivity to electrostatic effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10228-10232
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number26
StatePublished - Jun 26 2012


  • Acid-base
  • Air-water interface
  • Catalysis
  • Nitric acid dissociation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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