Proton and copper (Cu) binding to soil and lignite-based humic acid (HA) was investigated by combining X-ray absorption fine structure (XAFS) spectroscopy, isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC), and nonideal-competitive-adsorption (NICA) modeling. NICA model calculations and XAFS results showed that bidentate and monodentate complexation occurred for Cu binding to HA. The site-type-specific thermodynamic parameters obtained by combining ITC measurements and NICA calculations revealed that copper binding to deprotonated carboxylic-type sites was entropically driven and that to deprotonated phenolic-type sites was driven by entropy and enthalpy. Copper binding to HA largely depended on the site-type and coordination environment, but the thermodynamic binding mechanisms for Cu binding to the specific site-types were similar for the different HAs studied. By comparing the site-type-specific thermodynamic parameters of HA-Cu complexation with those of low molar mass organic acids, the Cu coordination could be further specified. Bidentate carboxylic-Cu complexes made the dominating contributions to Cu binding to HA. The present study not only yields molecular-scale mechanisms of ion binding to carboxylic- and phenolic-type sites of HA but also provides the new insight that the universal nature of site-type-specific thermodynamic data enables quantitative estimation of the binding structures of heavy metal ions to humic substances.
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