It occurs naturally in many foods, but excessive ingestion of oxalic acid or prolonged skin contact can be dangerous.
Its name comes from the fact that early investigators isolated oxalic acid from flowering plants of the genus Oxalis, commonly known as wood-sorrels.
The preparation of salts of oxalic acid (crab acid) from plants had been known, at the latest, since 1745, when the Dutch botanist and physician Herman Boerhaave isolated a salt from sorrel. By 1773, François Pierre Savary of Fribourg, Switzerland had isolated oxalic acid from its salt in sorrel.
In 1776, Swedish chemists Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Torbern Olof Bergman produced oxalic acid by reacting sugar with concentrated nitric acid; Scheele called the acid that resulted socker-syra or såcker-syra (sugar acid). By 1784, Scheele had shown that "sugar acid" and oxalic acid from natural sources were identical.
These diesters are subsequently hydrolyzed to oxalic acid. Approximately 120,000 tonnes are produced annually.
Historically oxalic acid was obtained exclusively by using caustics, such as sodium or potassium hydroxide, on sawdust.
Pyrolysis of sodium formate (ultimately prepared from carbon monoxide), leads to the formation of sodium oxalate, easily converted to oxalic acid.
Anhydrous oxalic acid exists as two polymorphs; in one the hydrogen-bonding results in a chain-like structure whereas the hydrogen bonding pattern in the other form defines a sheet-like structure. Because the anhydrous material is both acidic and hydrophilic (water seeking), it is used in esterifications.
Oxalic acid undergoes many of the reactions characteristic of other carboxylic acids. It forms esters such as dimethyl oxalate (m.p. 52.5 to 53.5 °C (126.5 to 128.3 °F)). It forms an acid chloride called oxalyl chloride.
Oxalate, the conjugate base of oxalic acid, is an excellent ligand for metal ions, e.g. the drug oxaliplatin.
Plants of the genus Fenestraria produce optical fibers made from crystalline oxalic acid to transmit light to subterranean photosynthetic sites.
Carambola, also known as starfruit, also contains oxalic acid along with caramboxin. Citrus juice contains small amounts of oxalic acid. Citrus fruits produced in organic agriculture contain less oxalic acid than those produced in conventional agriculture.
The formation of naturally occurring calcium oxalate patinas on certain limestone and marble statues and monuments has been proposed to be caused by the chemical reaction of the carbonate stone with oxalic acid secreted by lichen or other microorganisms.
Production by fungi
Many soil fungus species secrete oxalic acid, resulting in greater solubility of metal cations, increased availability of certain soil nutrients, and can lead to the formation of calcium oxalate crystals.
The conjugate base of oxalic acid is the hydrogenoxalate anion, and its conjugate base (oxalate) is a competitive inhibitor of the lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) enzyme. LDH catalyses the conversion of pyruvate to lactic acid (end product of the fermentation (anaerobic) process) oxidising the coenzyme NADH to NAD+ and H+ concurrently. Restoring NAD+ levels is essential to the continuation of anaerobic energy metabolism through glycolysis. As cancer cells preferentially use anaerobic metabolism (see Warburg effect) inhibition of LDH has been shown to inhibit tumor formation and growth, thus is an interesting potential course of cancer treatment.
About 25% of produced oxalic acid will be used as a mordant in dyeing processes. It is used in bleaches, especially for pulpwood. It is also used in baking powder and as a third reagent in silica analysis instruments.
Oxalic acid's main applications include cleaning or bleaching, especially for the removal of rust (iron complexing agent). Its utility in rust removal agents is due to its forming a stable, water-soluble salt with ferric iron, ferrioxalate ion.
Oxalic acid is an important reagent in lanthanide chemistry. Hydrated lanthanide oxalates form readily in very strongly acidic solutions in a densely crystalline, easily filtered form, largely free of contamination by nonlanthanide elements. Thermal decomposition of these oxalate gives the oxides, which is the most commonly marketed form of these elements.
Oxalic acid is sometimes used in the aluminum anodizing process, with or without sulfuric acid. Compared to sulfuric acid anodizing, the coatings obtained are thinner and exhibit lower surface roughness.
Oxalic acid is an ingredient in some tooth whitening products.
Oxalic acid in concentrated form can have harmful effects through contact and if ingested. It is not identified as mutagenic or carcinogenic, although there is a study suggesting it might cause breast cancer; there is a possible risk of congenital malformation in the fetus; may be harmful if inhaled, and is extremely destructive to tissue of mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract; harmful if swallowed; harmful to and destructive of tissue and causes burns if absorbed through the skin or is in contact with the eyes. Symptoms and effects include a burning sensation, cough, wheezing, laryngitis, shortness of breath, spasm, inflammation and edema of the larynx, inflammation and edema of the bronchi, pneumonitis, pulmonary edema.
In humans, ingested oxalic acid has an oral LDLo (lowest published lethal dose) of 600 mg/kg. It has been reported that the lethal oral dose is 15 to 30 grams.
Oxalate may enter cells where it is known to cause mitochondrial dysfunction.
The toxicity of oxalic acid is due to kidney failure caused by precipitation of solid calcium oxalate, the main component of calcium kidney stones. Oxalic acid can also cause joint pain by formation of similar precipitates in the joints. Ingestion of ethylene glycol results in oxalic acid as a metabolite which can also cause acute kidney failure.
^a Unless otherwise cited, all measurements are based on raw vegetable weights with original moisture content.
Herman Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae (Basil, Switzerland: Johann Rudolph Im-hoff, 1745), volume 2, pp. 35-38. (in Latin) From p. 35: "Processus VII. Sal nativum plantarum paratus de succo illarum recens presso. Hic Acetosae." (Procedure 7. A natural salt of plants prepared from their freshly pressed juice. This [salt obtained] from sorrel.)
Henry Enfield Roscoe and Carl Schorlemmer, ed.s, A Treatise on Chemistry (New York, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1890), volume 3, part 2, p. 105.
François Pierre Savary, Dissertatio Inauguralis De Sale Essentiali Acetosellæ [Inaugural dissertation on the essential salt of wood sorrel] (Jean François Le Roux, 1773). (in Latin) Savary noticed that when he distilled sorrel salt (potassium hydrogen oxalate), crystals would sublimate onto the receiver. From p. 17: "Unum adhuc circa liquorem acidum, quem sal acetosellae tam sincerissimum a nobis paratum quam venale destillatione fundit phoenomenon erit notandum, nimirum quod aliquid ejus sub forma sicca crystallina lateribus excipuli accrescat, ..." (One more [thing] will be noted regarding the acid liquid, which furnished for us sorrel salt as pure as commercial distillations, [it] produces a phenomenon, that evidently something in dry, crystalline form grows on the sides of the receiver, ...) These were crystals of oxalic acid.
Leopold Gmelin with Henry Watts, trans., Hand-book of Chemistry (London, England: Cavendish Society, 1855), volume 9, p. 111.
^Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1784) "Om Rhabarber-jordens bestånds-delar, samt sått at tilreda Acetosell-syran" (On rhubarb-earth's constituents, as well as ways of preparing sorrel-acid), Kungliga Vetenskapsakademiens Nya Handlingar [New Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Science], 2nd series, 5 : 183-187. (in Swedish) From p. 187: "Således finnes just samma syra som vi genom konst af socker med tilhjelp af salpeter-syra tilreda, redan förut af naturen tilredd uti o?rten Acetosella." (Thus it is concluded [that] the very same acid as we prepare artificially by means of sugar with the help of nitric acid, [was] previously prepared naturally in the herb acetosella [i.e., sorrel].)
^Bjerrum, J., et al. (1958) Stability Constants, Chemical Society, London.
^Haynes, W. M. (Ed.). (2014). CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 95th Edition (95 edition). Boca Raton; London; New York: CRC Press.]
^Clayton, G. D. and F. E. Clayton (eds.). Patty's Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology: Volume 2A, 2B, 2C: Toxicology. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley Sons, 1981-1982., p. 4936
^Rumble, J. (Ed.). (2019). CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 100th Edition (100 edition). CRC Press.
^Dutton, M. V.; Evans, C. S. (1996). "Oxalate production by fungi: Its role in pathogenicity and ecology in the soil environment". Canadian Journal of Microbiology. 42 (9): 881-895. doi:10.1139/m96-114..
^Rombauer, Rombauer Becker, and Becker (1931/1997). Joy of Cooking, p.415. ISBN0-684-81870-1.
^Sabbioni, Cristina; Zappia, Giuseppe (2016). "Oxalate patinas on ancient monuments: The biological hypothesis". Aerobiologia. 7: 31-37. doi:10.1007/BF02450015.
^Frank-Kamemetskaya, Olga; Rusakov, Alexey; Barinova, Ekaterina; Zelenskaya, Marina; Vlasov, Dmitrij (2012). "The Formation of Oxalate Patina on the Surface of Carbonate Rocks Under the Influence of Microorganisms". Proceedings of the 10th International Congress for Applied Mineralogy (ICAM). pp. 213-220. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-27682-8_27. ISBN978-3-642-27681-1.
^Dutton, Martin V.; Evans, Christine S. (1 September 1996). "Oxalate production by fungi: its role in pathogenicity and ecology in the soil environment". Canadian Journal of Microbiology. 42 (9): 881-895. doi:10.1139/m96-114.
^ abcChai, Weiwen; Liebman, Michael (2005). "Effect of Different Cooking Methods on Vegetable Oxalate Content". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 53 (8): 3027-30. doi:10.1021/jf048128d. PMID15826055.
^Durham, Sharon. "Making Spinach with Low Oxalate Levels". AgResearch Magazine (January 2017). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 2017. The scientists analyzed oxalate concentrations in 310 spinach varieties--300 USDA germplasm accessions and 10 commercial cultivars. "These spinach varieties and cultivars displayed oxalate concentrations from 647.2 to 1286.9 mg/100 g on a fresh weight basis," says Mou.