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The ionization state of organic molecules at the air-water interface and the related problem of the surface pH of water have significant consequences on the catalytic role of the surface in chemical reactions and are currently areas of intense research and controversy. In this work, infrared reflection-absorption spectroscopy (IRRAS) is used to identify changes in the ionization state of L-phenylalanine in the surface region versus the bulk aqueous solution. L-phenylalanine has the unique advantage of possessing two different hydrophilic groups, a carboxylic acid and an amine base, which can deprotonate and protonate respectively depending on the ionic environment they experience at the water surface. In this work, the polar group vibrations in the surface region are identified spectroscopically in varying bulk pH solutions, and are subsequently compared with the ionization state of the polar groups of molecules residing in the bulk environment. The polar groups of L-phenylalanine at the surface transition to their deprotonated state at bulk pH values lower than the molecules residing in the bulk, indicating a decrease in their pK(a) at the surface, and implying an enhanced hydroxide ion concentration in the surface region relative to the bulk.


Elizabeth C Griffith, Veronica Vaida. Ionization state of L-phenylalanine at the air-water interface. Journal of the American Chemical Society. 2013 Jan 16;135(2):710-6

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PMID: 23240998

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