Transport of Carbon Dioxide

Because the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is higher in the cells, it diffuses out of the cells and into the blood. Only about 7 percent of the carbon dioxide dissolves in the plasma. Approximately 23 percent binds to hemoglobin. The remaining 70 percent is carried in the blood as bicarbonate ions (HCO3). As shown in the equation below, CO2 reacts with water in the plasma to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). In turn, the carbonic acid disassociates into bicarbonate ions and hydrogen ions (H+):

Thus, most of the CO2 travels in the blood as bicarbonate ions. When the blood reaches the lungs, the reactions are reversed:

Bicarbonate ions combine with hydrogen ions to form carbonic acid, which in turn forms carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide diffuses out of the capillaries into the alveoli and is exhaled into the atmosphere.

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