In inorganic chemistry, bicarbonate (IUPAC-recommended nomenclature: hydrogen carbonate) is an intermediate form in the deprotonation of carbonic acid. It is a polyatomic anion with the chemical formula HCO-3. According to the Wikipedia article IUPAC nomenclature of inorganic chemistry, the prefix bi– is a deprecated way of indicating the presence of a single hydrogen ion. The recommended nomenclature today mandates explicit referencing of the presence of the single hydrogen ion: sodium hydrogen carbonate or sodium carbonate. A parallel example is sodium bisulfite (NaHSO3).
With carbonic acid as the central intermediate species, bicarbonate – in conjunction with water, hydrogen ions, and carbon dioxide – forms this buffering system, which is maintained at the volatile equilibrium required to provide prompt resistance to pH changes in both the acidic and basic directions. This is especially important for protecting tissues of the central nervous system, where pH changes too far outside of the normal range in either direction could prove disastrous (see acidosis or alkalosis).
Bicarbonate also serves much in the digestive system. It raises the internal pH of the stomach, after highly acidic digestive juices have finished in their digestion of food. Bicarbonate also acts to regulate pH in the small intestine. It is released from the pancreas in response to the hormone secretin to neutralize the acidic chyme entering the duodenum from the stomach.
In freshwater ecology, strong photosynthetic activity by freshwater plants in daylight releases gaseous oxygen into the water and at the same time produces bicarbonate ions. These shift the pH upward until in certain circumstances the degree of alkalinity can become toxic to some organisms or can make other chemical constituents such as ammonia toxic. In darkness, when no photosynthesis occurs, respiration processes release carbon dioxide, and no new bicarbonate ions are produced, resulting in a rapid fall in pH.
The most common salt of the bicarbonate ion is sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3, which is commonly known as baking soda. When heated or exposed to an acid such as acetic acid (vinegar), sodium bicarbonate releases carbon dioxide. This is used as a leavening agent in baking.