Man's Conquest of Substances
Substances belonging to this group usually have a bitter taste and a slimy, soapy feeling. For our present purposes, the most important characteristic of a base is that it will neutralize an acid and in some measure hinder the damage effected by the former. If, as soon as an acid has been spilled on cloth, a base, such as ammonia, is applied to the affected region, but little harm will be done. In your laboratory experiments you may be unfortunate enough to spill acid on your body or clothing; if so, quickly apply ammonia. If you delay, the acid does its work, and there is no remedy. If soda (a base) touches black material, it discolors it and leaves an ugly brown spot; but the application of a little acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, will often restore the original color and counteract the bad effects of the base. Limewater prescribed by physicians in cases of illness is a well-known base. This liquid neutralizes the too abundant acids present in a weak system and so quiets and tones the stomach.
The interaction of acids and bases may be observed in another way. If blue litmus paper is put into an acid solution, its color changes to red; if now the red litmus paper is dipped into a base solution, caustic soda, for example, its original color is partially restored. What the acid does, the base undoes, either wholly or in part. Bases always turn red litmus paper blue.
Bases, like acids, are good or bad according to their use; if they come in contact with cloth, they eat or discolor it, unless neutralized by an acid. But this property of bases, harmful in one way, is put to advantage in the home, where grease is removed from drainpipe and sink by the application of lye, a strong base. If the lye is too concentrated, it will not only eat the grease, but will corrode the metal piping; it is easy, however, to dilute base solutions to such a degree that they will not affect piping, but will remove grease. Dilute ammonia is used in almost every home and is an indispensable domestic servant; diluted sufficiently, it is invaluable in the washing of delicate fabrics and in the removing of stains, and in a more concentrated form it is helpful as a smelling salt in cases of fainting.
Some concentrated bases are so powerful in their action on grease, cloth, and metal that they have received the designation caustic
, and are ordinarily known as caustic soda, caustic potash (lye), and caustic lime. These more active bases are generally called alkalies in distinction from the less active ones.