Understanding pH measurement
In the process world, pH is an important parameter to be measured and controlled. The pH of a solution indicates how acidic or basic (alkaline) it is. The formal mathematical definition of pH is the negative logarithm of hydrogen ion activity. In most cases, hydrogen ion activity can be approximated by the hydrogen ion concentration, and the formula becomes pH = - log10 [H+].
In the process world, pH is an important parameter to be measured and controlled. The pH of a solution indicates how acidic or basic (alkaline) it is. The formal mathematical definition of pH is the negative logarithm of hydrogen ion activity. In most cases, hydrogen ion activity can be approximated by the hydrogen ion concentration, and the formula becomes pH = - log 10 [H+]. On the pH scale, which varies from 0-14, a very acidic solution has a low pH value, a very basic solution has a high pH value, and a neutral solution has a pH of approximately 7.
A pH measurement loop is made up of three components, the pH sensor, which includes a measuring electrode, a reference electrode, and a temperature sensor; a preamplifier; and an analyzer or transmitter. A pH measurement loop is essentially a battery where the positive terminal is the measuring electrode and the negative terminal is the reference electrode. The measuring electrode, which is sensitive to the hydrogen ion, develops a potential (voltage) directly related to the hydrogen ion concentration of the solution. The reference electrode provides a stable potential against which the measuring electrode can be compared.
When immersed in the solution, the reference electrode potential does not change with the changing hydrogen ion concentration. A solution in the reference electrode also makes contact with the sample solution and the measuring electrode through a junction, completing the circuit. Output of the measuring electrode changes with temperature (even though the process remains at a constant pH), so a temperature sensor is necessary to correct for this change in output. This is done in the analyzer or transmitter software. The pH sensor components are usually combined into one device called a combination pH electrode. The measuring electrode is usually glass and quite fragile. Recent developments have replaced the glass with more durable solid-state sensors. The preamplifier is a signal-conditioning device. It takes the high-impedance pH electrode signal and changes it into a low impedance signal which the analyzer or transmitter can accept. The preamplifier also strengthens and stabilizes the signal, making it less susceptible to electrical noise.
The sensor's electrical signal is then displayed. This is commonly done in a 120/240 V ac-powered analyzer or in a 24 V dc loop-powered transmitter. Additionally, the analyzer or transmitter has a human machine interface for calibrating the sensor and configuring outputs and alarms, if pH control is being done.
Keep in mind, application requirements should be carefully considered when choosing a pH electrode. Accurate pH measurement and the resulting precise control that it can allow, can go a long way toward process optimization and result in increased product quality and consistency. Accurate, stable pH measurement also controls and often lowers chemical usage, minimizing system maintenance and expense.
Tom Griffiths is product manager, pH measurement at Honeywell in Ft.Washington, Pa. He holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from Clarkson University and an MBA in Marketing from Temple University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Keeping the system up and running
A system's pH electrodes require periodic maintenance to clean and calibrate them. The length of time between cleaning and calibration depends on process conditions and the user's accuracy and stability expectations. Over time, electrical properties of the measuring and reference electrode change. Calibration in known-value pH solutions called buffers will correct for some of these changes. Cleaning of the measuring sensor and reference junction will also help. However, just as batteries have a limited life, a pH electrode's lifetime is also finite. Even in the "friendliest" environments, pH electrodes have to be replace eventually.