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Defines pH indicators and explains how they function.

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Cabbage can be used as a home-made indicator

Credit: Flickr: brittgow
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brittgow/4782591644/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Who would write a song about a cabbage?

There’s an old bluegrass song known as “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” Many people enjoy the music, but chemistry students also enjoy the product of the boiled cabbage. Extracting the anthocyanin dye from cabbage leaves with boiling water gives a solution that is red when acidic, purple when neutral, and green to yellow when basic (pictured above).


An acid-base indicator is a substance that displays different colors when in the presence of an acid or a base. How does that work? An indicator is a weak acid that ionizes within a known pH range, usually about 2 pH units. We can represent the protonated form of the indicator molecule as HIn and the deprotonated form as In. The following equilibrium exists for the indicator.

\begin{align*}\text{HIn}(aq) \rightleftarrows \text{H}^+(aq)+\text{In}^-(aq)\end{align*}

According to LeChâtelier’s principle, the addition of H+ ions (as in a low pH solution) drives the equilibrium to the left and the protonated HIn predominates. The addition of OH (as in a high pH solution) decreases the H+ concentration and drives the equilibrium to the right and the deprotonated In predominates. To be useful as an indicator, the two forms must be different colors. In the case of phenolphthalein, the protonated form is colorless, while the deprotonated form is pink. Figure below shows a variety of acid-base indicators that can be used in titration experiments.

Many indicators can be used for acid-base experiments

Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng, using data from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PH_indicator
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

pH indicators.[Figure2]

Depending on the pH at the equivalence point, the appropriate indicator must be chosen. For example, bromphenol blue has a yellow color below a pH of about 3 and a blue-violet color above a pH of about 4. Bromphenol blue would not be a good choice as the indicator for a strong acid-strong base titration, because the pH is 7 at the equivalence point. Instead, it could be used for a strong acid-weak base titration, where the pH at the equivalence point is lower.

Most indicators have two colored forms. Universal indicator displays the entire rainbow of colors from low pH to high pH (see Figure below). Universal indicator is used to make pH paper, which can be used to quickly test solutions for their approximate pH.

Universal indicator can be used to quickly test the pH of a solution

Credit: User:Bordercolliez/Wikimedia Commons
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Universal_indicator_paper.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Universal indicator tape.[Figure3]


  1. What is an indicator?
  2. What would be the best indicator to use around pH 1?
  3. What indicator besides phenolphthalein might you use for a pH 7 experiment?

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Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What was the acid used?
  2. What was the base used?
  3. What color was methyl orange in acid? in base?
  4. What color did indigo carmine turn in acid? in base?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Flickr: brittgow; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brittgow/4782591644/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng, using data from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PH_indicator; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: User:Bordercolliez/Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Universal_indicator_paper.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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