Humic acid is a principal component of humic substances, which are the major organic constituents of soil (humus), peat, coal, many upland streams, dystrophic lakes, and ocean water. It is produced by biodegradation of dead organic matter. It is not a single acid; rather, it is a complex mixture of many different acids containing carboxyl and phenolate groups so that the mixture behaves functionally as a dibasic acid or, occasionally, as a tribasic acid. Humic acids can form complexes with ions that are commonly found in the environment creating humic colloids. Humic and fulvic acids (fulvic acids are humic acids of lower molecular weight and higher oxygen content than other humic acids) are commonly used as a soil supplement in agriculture, and less commonly as a human nutritional supplement. As a nutrition supplement, fulvic acid can be found in a liquid form as a component of mineral colloids. Fulvic acids are poly-electrolytes and are unique colloids that diffuse easily through membranes whereas all other colloids do not. "Synthesis of fulvic acid (1a) was accomplished by a route involving selective ozonization of 9-propenylpyranobenzopyran (1c), obtained by a regioselective cyclization of the 2-methylsulphinylmethyl 1,3-dione(3c)."
Humic substances are formed by the microbial degradation of dead plant matter, such as lignin. They are very resistant to further biodegradation. The precise properties and structure of a given sample depend on the water or soil source and the specific conditions of extraction. Nevertheless, the average properties of humic substances from different sources are remarkably similar.
Humic substances in soils and sediments can be divided into three main fractions: humic acids, fulvic acids, and humin. The humic and fulvic acids are extracted as a colloidal sol from soil and other solid phase sources into a strongly basic aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Humic acids are precipitated from this solution by adjusting the pH to 1 with hydrochloric acid, leaving the fulvic acids in solution. This is the operational distinction between humic and fulvic acids. Humin is insoluble in dilute alkali. The alcohol-soluble portion of the humic fraction is, in general, named ulmic acid. So-called "gray humic acids" (GHA) are soluble in low-ionic-strength alkaline media; "brown humic acids" (BHA) are soluble in alkaline conditions independent of ionic strength; and fulvic acids (FA) are soluble independent of pH and ionic strength.
Liquid chromatography and liquid-liquid extraction can be used to separate the components that make up a humic substance. Substances identified include mono-, di-, and tri-hydroxy acids, fatty acids, dicarboxylic acids, linear alcohols, phenolic acids.