Example of a typical humic acid, having a variety of components including quinone, phenol, catechol and sugar moieties
A typical humic substance is a mixture of many molecules, some of which are based on a motif of aromatic nuclei with phenolic and carboxylic substituents, linked together; the illustration shows a typical structure. The functional groups that contribute most to surface charge and reactivity of humic substances are phenolic and carboxylic groups. Humic acids behave as mixtures of dibasic acids, with a pK1 value around 4 for protonation of carboxyl groups and around 8 for protonation of phenolate groups. There is considerable overall similarities among individual humic acids. For this reason, measured pK values for a given sample are average values relating to the constituent species. The other important characteristic is charge density. The molecules may form a supramolecular structure held together by non-covalent forces, such as Van der Waals force, π-π, and CH-π bonds.
The presence of carboxylate and phenolate groups gives the humic acids the ability to form complexes with ions such as Mg2+, Ca2+, Fe2+ and Fe3+. Many humic acids have two or more of these groups arranged so as to enable the formation of chelate complexes. The formation of (chelate) complexes is an important aspect of the biological role of humic acids in regulating bioavailability of metal ions.