1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Boric Acid

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BORIC ACID, or Boracic Acid, H3BO3, an acid obtained by dissolving boron trioxide in water. It was first prepared by Wilhelm Homberg (1652–1715) from borax, by the action of mineral acids, and was given the name sal sedativum Hombergi. The presence of boric acid or its salts has been noted in sea-water, whilst it is also said to exist in plants and especially in almost all fruits (A. H. Allen, Analyst, 1904, 301). The free acid is found native in certain volcanic districts such as Tuscany, the Lipari Islands and Nevada, issuing mixed with steam from fissures in the ground; it is also found as a constituent of many minerals (borax, boracite, boronatrocalcite and colemanite).

The chief source of boric acid for commercial purposes is the Maremma of Tuscany, an extensive and desolate tract of country over which jets of vapour and heated gases (soffioni) and springs of boiling water spurt out from chasms and fissures. In some places the fissures open directly into the air, but in other parts of the district they are covered by small muddy lakes (lagoni). The soffioni contain a small quantity of boric acid (usually less than 0.1%), together with a certain amount of ammoniacal vapours. In order to obtain the acid, a series of basins is constructed over the vents, and so arranged as to permit of the passage of water through them by gravitation. Water is led into the highest basin and by the action of the heated gases is soon brought into a state of ebullition; after remaining in this basin for about a day, it is run off into the second one and is treated there in a similar manner. The operation is carried on through the entire series, until the liquor in the last basin contains about 2% of boric acid. It is then run into settling tanks, from which it next passes into the evaporating pans, which are shallow lead-lined pans heated by the gases of the soffioni. These pans are worked on a continuous system, the liquor in the first being concentrated and run off into a second, and so on, until it is sufficiently concentrated to crystallize. The crystals are purified by recrystallization from water. Artificial soffioni are sometimes prepared by boring through the rock until the fissures are reached, and the water so obtained is occasionally sufficiently impregnated with boric acid to be evaporated directly. Boric acid is also obtained from boronatrocalcite by treatment with sulphuric acid, followed by the evaporation of the solution so obtained. The residue is then heated in a current of superheated steam, in which the boric acid volatilizes and distils over. It may also be obtained by the decomposition of boracite with hot hydrochloric acid. In small quantities, it may be prepared by the addition of concentrated sulphuric acid to a cold saturated solution of borax.

Na2B4O7 + H2SO4 + 5H2O = Na2SO4 + 4H3BO3.

Boric acid crystallizes from water in white nacreous laminae belonging to the triclinic system; it is difficultly soluble in cold water, but dissolves readily in hot water. It is one of the “weak” acids, its dissociation constant being only 0.08169 (J. Walker, Jour. of Chem. Soc., 1900, lxxvii. 5), and consequently its salts are appreciably hydrolysed in aqueous solution. The free acid turns blue litmus to a claret colour. Its action upon turmeric is characteristic; a turmeric paper moistened with a solution of boric acid turns brown, the colour becoming much darker as the paper dries; while the addition of sodium or potassium hydroxide turns it almost black. Boric acid is easily soluble in alcohol, and if the vapour of the solution be inflamed it burns with a characteristic vivid green colour. The acid on being heated to 100° C. loses water and is converted into metaboric acid, HBO3; at 140° C., pyroboric acid, H2B4O7, is produced; at still higher temperatures, boron trioxide is formed. The salts of the normal or orthoboric acid in all probability do not exist; metaboric acid, however, forms several well-defined salts which are readily converted, even by carbon dioxide, into salts of pyroboric acid. That orthoboric acid is a tribasic acid is shown by the formation of ethyl orthoborate on esterification, the vapour density of which corresponds to the molecular formula B(OC2H5)3; the molecular formula of the acid must consequently be B(OH)3 or H3BO3. The metallic borates are generally obtained in the hydrated condition, and with the exception of those of the alkali metals, are insoluble in water. The most important of the borates is sodium pyroborate or borax (q.v.).

Borax and boracic acid are feeble but useful antiseptics. Hence they may be used to preserve food-substances, such as milk and butter (see Adulteration). In medicine boracic acid is used in solution to relieve itching, but its chief use is as a mild antiseptic to impregnate lint or cotton-wool. Recent work has shown it is too feeble to be relied upon alone, but where really efficient antiseptics, such as mercuric chloride and iodide, and carbolic acid, have been already employed, boracic acid (which, unlike these, is non-poisonous and non-irritant) may legitimately be used to maintain the aseptic or non-bacterial condition which they have obtained. Borax taken internally is of some value in irritability of the bladder, but as a urinary antiseptic it is now surpassed by several recently introduced drugs, such as urotropine.