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J Phys Chem B. 2005 Apr 28;109(16):7617-23.

Unified molecular picture of the surfaces of aqueous acid, base, and salt solutions.

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Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and Center for Biomolecules and Complex Molecular Systems, Flemingovo nam. 2, 16610 Prague 6, Czech Republic.


The molecular structure of the interfacial regions of aqueous electrolytes is poorly understood, despite its crucial importance in many biological, technological, and atmospheric processes. A long-term controversy pertains between the standard picture of an ion-free surface layer and the strongly ion specific behavior indicating in many cases significant propensities of simple inorganic ions for the interface. Here, we present a unified and consistent view of the structure of the air/solution interface of aqueous electrolytes containing monovalent inorganic ions. Molecular dynamics calculations show that in salt solutions and bases the positively charged ions, such as alkali cations, are repelled from the interface, whereas the anions, such as halides or hydroxide, exhibit a varying surface propensity, correlated primarily with the ion polarizability and size. The behavior of acids is different due to a significant propensity of hydronium cations for the air/solution interface. Therefore, both cations and anions exhibit enhanced concentrations at the surface and, consequently, these acids (unlike bases and salts) reduce the surface tension of water. The results of the simulations are supported by surface selective nonlinear vibrational spectroscopy, which reveals among other things that the hydronium cations are present at the air/solution interface. The ion specific propensities for the air/solution interface have important implications for a whole range of heterogeneous physical and chemical processes, including atmospheric chemistry of aerosols, corrosion processes, and bubble coalescence.

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