Why are secondary standard solutions used in titrations? Why don't we always use primary standard solutions?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Can you explain briefly what "primary and secondary standard" do you mean? $\endgroup$
    – làntèrn
    May 17, 2015 at 13:43
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ These are standard terms covered in any quantitative analysis course. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Jun 17, 2015 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ KHP would be a primary standard in an acid base reaction. It can be obtained in high purity, and dried in an oven so that a given weight of KHP has a known amount of acid. You'd use the KHP and titrate with NaOH. The NaOH solution would then have a known value and be a secondary standard since its value was dependent on the KHP. $\endgroup$
    – MaxW
    Feb 15, 2017 at 19:03

2 Answers 2


A primary standard is critical for an analytical result. If we dissolve a known mass of a material into a known volume, we must be able to know its concentration with confidence. Such a standard must be easily made very pure (> 99.95%), it should not decompose, and it must be fairly robust to say heating or vacuum. We use such standard solutions as, for example, titrants. This is surprisingly hard to come by, and so we say that secondary standards are materials that do not meet these strict criteria.

Say you want to titrate a sulfuric acid solution for quantitative work, you could use a known concentration of NaOH or KOH and volumetrically determine the concentration of the sulfuric acid solution. In fact, dissolving pellets of these particular bases in a known volume of water is not sufficient to calculate concentration with any confidence in analytical work because the solids are contaminated with carbonate from atmospheric CO$_2$. In general these carbonates contaminate alkaline solutions quite readily through this reaction: $\ce{OH- + CO2 -> HCO3-}.$ This is why we would have to titrate the concentration of $\ce{NaOH} $ solution with a primary standard before using it as a secondary standard.

Now there are acid and base primary standards available, so why would one ever need to use a secondary standard? Usually it’s a matter of specific needs and convenience. Whenever possible, use a primary standard if your results actually matter.

Let us look at a specific case where a secondary standard is useful: potassium permanganate is exceptionally useful as a titrant because it serves as its own indicator where the presence of a purple color signifies the end point, but it is unstable in light or heat due to this reaction: $\ce{4 MnO4^- +2H2O -> 4MnO2 + 3O2 + 4OH-}$. This is why solutions of it must be stored in a dark cool place; even still, we must standardize the concentration of such a solution and we can only trust its measured concentration for a short time thereafter.

A secondary standard solution of $\ce{KMnO4}$ is usually titrated by oxalic acid, a primary standard, and then used to determine the concentration of a number of other analytes.

The reaction with oxalic acid can be summarized as $\ce{5 H2C2O4 + 2 MnO4- + 6H+ -> 10CO2 + 2 Mn^{2+} + 8H2O}$ where everything except $\ce{MnO4-}$ is colorless. The end point of this titration is a marked by a purple color due to unconsumed $\ce{MnO4-}$. This allows you to make a standardized solution of potassium permanganate that can be used for a short while.

Now, how would we use this? Solutions containing $\ce{Ca^2+, Pb^2+, Ag+, Mg^2+, Co^2+, Zn^2+}$ and etc. can be precipitated as a metal oxalate. You would then digest this ppt in an acidic solution and titrate the released $\ce{H2C2O4}$, where the end point is marked by a purple color, allowing you to infer the original concentration of the metal ion in the original solution.

$\ce{KMnO4}$ was used in mineralogical surveys of uranium prior to the Manhattan project, where better techniques were developed to quantitate.

  • $\begingroup$ This is way too long... $\endgroup$
    – MaxW
    Feb 15, 2017 at 18:59

As @Ridho requested, you should clarify the meaning of primary and secondary standard as those expression gets differents meaning depending on the context used. For my part I will try to answer you with this. When you are doing a sample determination by titration, you usually use a titration compound which is easy to calculate proportion with, like NaOH or HCl for pH titration. Those two are pretty well forward, they are widely available, they are considered to be 100% dissociated when mixed in water, and 1N of NaOH/HCl is considered to neutralise 1N of anything else in the pH world. But, it comes with a catch. Those two don't give solutions that are stable in term of concentration. NaOH pellets are highly hygroscopic and HCl tend to "evaporate" as it is primarely a gas. So even if you weight 39.9971g of NaOH and you make a solution of 1000.000mL, you will not get a 1.00N solution. So you need to confirm or standardize your solution with another compound which is more stable, got an easy to work with pHI, but is useless for your first détermination. For NaOH, in our lab we use potassium hydrogen phthalate with phenolphthalein.


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