Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Good Buffer

By Scott Rudge

“A Good Buffer” has a number of connotations in biochemistry and biochemical engineering. A “good buffer” would be one that has good buffering capacity at the desired pH. The best buffering capacity is at the pK of the buffer of course, although it seems buffer salts are rarely used at their pK.

Second, a good buffer would be one matched to the application. Or maybe that’s first. For example, the buffering ion in an ion exchange chromatography step should be the same charge as the resin (so as not to bind and take up resin capacity). For example, phosphate ion (negative) is a good choice for cation exchange resins (also negatively charged) like S and CM resins.

Another meaning of a “Good” buffer is a buffer described by Dr. Norman Good and colleagues in 1966 (N. E. Good, G. D. Winget, W. Winter, T. N. Connolly, S. Izawa and R. M. M. Singh (1966). "Hydrogen Ion Buffers for Biological Research". Biochemistry 5 (2): 467–477.). These twelve buffers have pK’s spanning the range 6.15 to 8.35, and are a mixture of organic acids, organic bases and zwitterions (having both an acidic and basic site). All twelve of Good’s buffers have pK’s that are fairly strongly temperature dependent, meaning that, in addition to the temperature correction required for the activity of hydrogen ion, there is an actual shift in pH that is temperature dependent. So, while a buffer can be matched to the desired pH approximately every 0.2 pH units across pH 7 ± 1, the buffers are expensive and not entirely suited to manufacturing applications.

In our view, a good buffer is one that is well understood and is designed for its intended purpose. To be designed for its intended purpose, it should be well matched to provide adequate buffering capacity at the desired pH and desired temperature. As shown in the figure, the buffering capacity of a buffer with a pK of 8 is nearly exhausted below pH 7 and above pH 9.

It’s easy to overshoot the desired pH at these “extremes”, but just such a mismatch between buffering ion and desired pH is often specified. Furthermore, buffers are frequently made by titrating to the desired pH from the pK of the base or the acid. This leads to batch to batch variation in the amount of titrant used, because of overshooting and retracing. In addition, the temperature dependence of the pK is not taken into account when specifying the temperature of the buffer. Tris has a pK of 8.06 at 20°C, so a Tris buffer used at pH 7.0 is already not a good idea at 20°C. The pK of Tris changes by -0.03 pH units for every 1°C in positive temperature change. So if the temperature specified for the pH 7.0 buffer is 5°C, the pK will have shifted to 8.51. Tris has 3% of its buffering capacity available at pH 7.0, 5°C, it’s not well matched at all.

A good buffer will have a known mass transfer rate in water, so that its mixing time can be predicted. Precise amounts of buffering acid or base and cosalt are added to give the exact pH required at the exact temperature specified. This actually reduces our reliance on measurements like pH and conductivity that can be inexact. Good buffers can be made with much more precision than ± 0.2 pH units and ± 10% of nominal conductivity, and when you start to make buffers this way, you will rely more on your balance and understanding of appropriate storage conditions for your raw materials, than making adjustments in the field with titrants, time consuming mixing and guessing whether variation in conductivity is going to upset the process.

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