A pH meter is an electronic instrument used to measure the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of a liquid (though special probes are sometimes used to measure the pH of semi-solid substances). A typical pH meter consists of a special measuring probe (a glass electrode) connected to an electronic meter that measures and displays the pH reading.
The pH probe measures pH as the activity of hydrogen ions surrounding a thin-walled glass bulb at its tip. The probe produces a small voltage (about 0.06 volt per pH unit) that is measured and displayed as pH units by the meter. For more information about pH probes, see glass electrode.
The meter circuit is fundamentally no more than a voltmeter that displays measurements in pH units instead of volts. The input impedance of the meter must be very high because of the high resistance — approximately 20 to 1000 MΩ — of the glass electrode probes typically used with pH meters. The circuit of a simple pH meter usually consists of operational amplifiers in an inverting configuration, with a total voltage gain of about -17. The inverting amplifier converts the small voltage produced by the probe (-0.059 volt/pH in basic solutions, +0.059 volt/pH in acid solutions) into pH units, which are then offset by seven volts to give a reading on the pH scale. For example:
- At neutral pH (pH 7) the voltage at the probe's output is 0 volts. 0 * 17 + 7 = 7.
- At alkaline pH, the voltage at the probe's output ranges from > 0 to +0.41 volts (7 * 0.059 = 0.41). So for a sample of pH 10 (3 pH units from neutral), 3 * 0.059 = 0.18 volts), the output of the meter's amplifier is 0.18 * 17 + 7 = 10.
- At acid pH, the voltage at the probe's output ranges from -0.7 volts to < 0. So for a sample of pH 4 (also 3 pH units from neutral, but in the other direction), 3 * +0.059 = +0.18 volts, the output of the meter's amplifier is -0.18 * 17 + 7 = 4.
The two basic adjustments performed at calibration (see below) set the gain and offset of the inverting amplifier.
Calibration and use
Calibration with at least two, but preferably three, buffer solution standards is usually performed every time a pH meter is used, though modern instruments will hold their calibration for around a month. One of the buffers has a pH of 7.01 (almost neutral pH) and the second buffer solution is selected to match the pH range in which the measurements are to be taken: usually pH 10.01 for basic solutions and pH 4.01 for acidic solutions (It should be noted that the pH of the calibration solutions is only valid at 25°C). The gain and offset settings of the meter are adjusted repeatedly as the probe is alternately placed in the two calibration standards until accurate readings are obtained in both solutions. Modern instruments have completely automated this process and only require immersing in each solution once, or at worst, twice.
The calibration process correlates the voltage produced by the probe (approximately 0.06 volts per pH unit) with the pH scale. After calibration, the probe is rinsed in distilled, deionized water to remove any traces of the buffer solution, blotted with a clean tissue to absorb any remaining water which could dilute the sample and thus alter the reading, and then quickly immersed in the sample. Between uses, the probe tip, which must be kept wet at all times, is typically kept immersed in a small volume of storage solution, which is an acidic solution of around pH 3.0. Alternatively, the pH 7.01 calibration solution can be used, but this results in a need for more frequent calibration. In an emergency, tap water can be used, but distilled or deionised water must never be used for longer-term probe storage as the relatively ionless water 'sucks' ions out of the probe, which degrades it.
Types of pH meters
pH meters range from simple and inexpensive pen-like devices to complex and expensive laboratory instruments with computer interfaces and several inputs for indicator (ion-sensitive, redox), reference electrodes, and temperature sensors such as thermoresistors or thermocouples. Cheaper models sometimes require that temperature measurements be entered to adjust for the slight variation in pH caused by temperature. Specialty meters and probes are available for use in special applications, harsh environments, etc. Pocket pH meter are readily available today for a few tens of dollars that automatically compensate for temperature (ATC, Automatic Temperature Compensation)
The first commercial pH meters were built around 1936 by Radiometer in Denmark and by Dr. Arnold Orville Beckman in the United States. While Beckman was an assistant professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, he was asked to devise a quick and accurate method for measuring the acidity of lemon juice for the California Fruit Growers Exchange (Sunkist). Beckman's invention helped him to launch the Beckman Instruments company (now Beckman Coulter). In 2004 the Beckman pH meter was designated an ACS National Historical Chemical Landmark in recognition of its significance as the first commercially successful electronic pH meter.
Building a pH meter
Because the circuitry of a basic pH meter is quite simple, it is possible to build a serviceable pH meter or pH controller with parts available at a neighborhood electronics retailer. (pH probes, however, are not so easily acquired and must usually be ordered from a scientific instrument supplier.) For a walkthrough of how to build the simplest possible pH meteror a detailed description of how to build a pH meter/pH controller, see The pH Pages. The application note for the LM6001chip at the National Semiconductor web site also has a very simple demonstration circuit. Although the application note is for a specialty IC, serviceable pH meters can be built from any operational amplifier with a high input impedance, such as the common and inexpensive National Semiconductor TL082 or its equivalent.
- Examples of pH meters - Good example of how pH theories are applied to commercial products
- Introduction to pH - Excellent overview of pH and pH measurement at the Omega Engineering website
- The story of pH made easy - An introduction to the basics of pH and pH measurement
- www.ph-meter.info- Theoretical and practical information about pH meters
- The Beckman pH Meter - National Historic Chemical Landmark of the American Chemical Society
- CurTiPot software - All-in-one freeware for pH and acid-base equilibrium calculations and for simulation and analysis of POTentiometric TItration CURves