Hey, chemists!

How would you describe the smell of acid? Does it have a smell? (Any kind of acid will do; I’m looking for commonalities here.)

0 Responses to “Hey, chemists!”

  1. zunger

    I normally try to avoid smelling strong acids rather carefully. 🙂 But our sour taste receptors are just acidity receptors — acids are sour by definition. So I suspect that they would smell sour as well.

    • Marie Brennan

      I remember being taught in chemistry class to waft a bit of air toward my face rather than sniffing things directly, yes. 🙂 Thanks!

  2. shui_long

    Acrid, sharp…

    Any properly-trained chemist would know better than to sniff any strong acid directly, as the fumes could easily burn the membranes in your nose, but the smell drifting from an open carboy of sulphuric acid is fairly obvious.

    • electricpaladin

      Think of it this way: if you’re smelling the acid, it’s the kind of acid that gives off fumes. The fumes are also acid. What you’re “smelling” is the acid boiling off the inside of your own nose.

      This is why chemists don’t generally sniff acids.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I figured people would answer based more on the experience of general proximity, rather than direct huffing of the stuff. Anyway, that’s more or less what I thought, scent-wise — thanks.

  3. mastadge

    Not a chemist, but acids smell different from each other; some really only have an odor at high concentration; some really don’t have an odor under normal conditions. I don’t think there’s much commonality — maybe a general bitterness?

    • Marie Brennan

      What I’m trying to describe is an acid that doesn’t exist in reality, hence going for commonality. Bitterness and the other answers I’m getting here will work for my purposes.

  4. tchernabyelo

    I’d go with one of acrid; pungent; sharp; or bitter.

    Most acids don’t actually smell of anything. If an acid is strong enough to smell, it will normally be highly unpleasant, as what it’ll be doing is dissolving into the liquid in your nose and, well, turning it into the acid you’re smelling… and you don’t want acid up your nose.

    • Marie Brennan

      The pov character for that line has a much stronger sense of smell than a human, so he’d pick up on fainter traces. But no, he doesn’t like it much at all.

      • fhtagn

        I’d strongly advise against bitter, because bitter is what we taste for bases – compare caffeine (bitter) to lemons (sharp, acrid) and vinegar (acrid, sour). As others have said though, acids smell of themselves, basically, and aside from sour, they’ll all be fairly distinctive, especially to someone with a more refined nose.

        That said, many common acids are also found in nature, so citric acid has fruity overtones as does malic, hydrochloric acid gives the sharp stink of vomit (in part), prussic acid smells like almonds and so on. Hydrofluoric acid smells like oh-shit-my-bones-are-melting.

        • Marie Brennan

          He’s smelling an acid that doesn’t exist in reality, that he doesn’t initially recognize as an acid. I’ll probably go with either “sour” or “sharp” as the initial descriptor, or both.

  5. mrissa

    Sharp, is the word I would use.

    Think of which cooking things are canonically acidic. Tomato, citrus, vinegar. If you have to use a word other than “acidic” for the smell of acid, I’d go with “sharp.”

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t want to say “acidic” right from the start, because it takes the pov character a moment to figure out what he’s smelling (which is, in fact, an acid). But yeah, that was mostly what I was thinking.

  6. diatryma

    It’s been a while since I was in lab, but heat goes with acid for me. I was using Hella Sulfuric Acid at one point, and whether it was a genuine smell or me conflating what happens when you clean it up, which is likely because it was in a hood at the time, I remember its fumes smelling hot.

  7. wshaffer

    For a strong inorganic acid (like hydrochloric or sulfuric acid), while they do have somewhat distinct smells, the overwhelming impression is a very strong acridness – it’s a bit hard to separate the smell from the sting in the eyes and catch at the back of the throat that you’re likely to get if you’re close enough to get a good whiff.

    Weaker organic acids often have more distinctive smells (possibly because the acrid note is less overwhelming) and can be all over the map from fruity to putrid. (Has flashback to the undergrad lab where we synthesized a major component of rancid butter and body odor. What a rotten trick.) But I’m guessing you’ve got more of a strong inorganic acid in mind.

  8. malsperanza

    As a printmaker I’ve worked with hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric acid, and each has a different smell. (Just as citric acid and vinegar don’t smell alike.)

    Sulfuric acid smells like sulfur–rotten eggs.

    Nitric acid smells sort of musty, a bit like fallen leaves, or some kind of mud, almost nutty.

    Hydrochloric acid smells more metallic and chemical than the other two; like a much fainter version of chlorine. Its smell isn’t very strong, even at high concentrations.

  9. Anonymous

    Perhaps the German name for acids will help, a little bit:
    (literally, “sourish stuff”).

    Most of smell relates not to the classifying chemical nature of a compound, but to the remainder of the compound and impurities (natural or otherwise). For example, the particular “smell” of sulphuric acid wafting through most laboratories is usually the smell of ionized impurities, decayed glassware and tubing, and the occasional metallic bits that have vaporized. More to the point, to a less-than-highly-trained nose there’s almost no odor difference between excruciatingly pure ethanol and excruciatingly pure acetic acid… but in their natural states, there’s an obvious difference between store-bought “grain alcohol” and store-bought distilled white vinegar, even if both are allowed to sit in identical containers for a few hours to let container odors boil off.

    As an aside, this was one of the primary problems with both pre-electrical chemistry and alchemy: Impure reagents made figuring out what was going on virtually impossible. One of the less-obvious accomplishments of the German organic chemists of the 1830s and 1840s was their imposition of “clean lab” practices as the default, which in turn gave them a substantial advantage for non-vapor-phase chemistry over their French and English counterparts for about twenty years… much to their dismay when advanced German chemistry using purified picric acid led to better munitions in time for the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars.

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