chemical equation

chemical equation

chemical equation, group of symbols representing a chemical reaction.

Basic Notation Used in Equations

The chemical equation 2H2+O2→2H2O represents the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to form water. The arrow points in the direction of the reaction—from the reactants (substances that react) toward the product or products. In this case the reactants are hydrogen (written H2 because each molecule consists of two atoms of hydrogen) and oxygen (written O2 because each molecule consists of two atoms of oxygen) and the product is water. The coefficient 2 before the H2 indicates that two molecules of hydrogen take part in the reaction, and the 2 before the H2O indicates that two molecules of water are produced. When no number is written, as in front of the O2, a one is assumed; one molecule of oxygen takes part in the reaction. The equation shows that two molecules of hydrogen react with one molecule of oxygen to form two molecules of water. Because of the relationship between molecules and the mole, the equation also shows that two moles of hydrogen react with one mole of oxygen to form two moles of water. The same sort of relationship holds with the gram-formula weight.

Methodology for Writing an Equation

There are three steps involved in writing a chemical equation. The first step is to decide which substances are the reactants and which are the products. For example, natural gas (cooking gas) burns in air, providing heat and producing no visible products. The natural gas is principally methane, and the portion of the air that reacts (supports combustion) is oxygen. These are the reactants. Products of the reaction are heat and two invisible gases, carbon dioxide and water vapor. We can now write the word equation methane + oxygen → carbon dioxide + water vapor + heat. The next step is to determine the correct formula for each substance and substitute it for the name. The equation now becomes CH4+O2→CO2+H2O. (A notation for heat is often omitted.)

The final step is to balance this equation. As the equation is now written, three oxygen atoms are produced from two, and four hydrogen atoms become only two. This cannot occur, since atoms are not created or destroyed in chemical reactions. The equation is already balanced for carbon, since there is one carbon atom on the reactant side and one carbon atom on the product side. There are four hydrogen atoms in the methane molecule on the reactant side, so there must be four hydrogen atoms in water molecules on the product side (since water is the only product containing hydrogen); thus there must be two water molecules, each containing two hydrogen atoms. The equation can now be written CH4+O2→CO2+2H2O. It is not yet balanced, since there are only two oxygen atoms shown as reactants and four as products. The equation is completely balanced by showing two oxygen molecules (four atoms) as reactants: CH4+2O2→CO2+2H2O.

Additional Symbols Used in Chemical Equations

There are a number of other symbols used in chemical equations. A symbol written above or below the reaction arrow indicates special reaction conditions. For example, when mercuric oxide is heated it decomposes into mercury metal and oxygen gas; this reaction is shown by the equation 2HgO Δ⃗ 2Hg + O2↑. The Greek letter delta under the arrow represents the heating. The upward-pointing arrow after the O2 indicates that this product is gaseous and escapes. When a precipitate is formed by a reaction, the substance that precipitates is often followed by a downward-pointing arrow, e.g., AgNO3 + NaCl H2O͢; AgCl↓ + NaNO3. The H2O above the arrow shows that the reaction takes place in the presence of water—in this case, in water solution. The formulas AgNO3, NaCl, and NaNO3 do not represent molecules, since these substances are almost completely ionized in water solution (see ion).

When chemical equilibrium occurs in a reaction, the double arrow is used instead of the single arrow. For example, liquid water dissociates to form hydronium ions (H3O+) and hydroxide ions (OH-). These ions exist in equilibrium with water molecules. The equation is 2H2O &rlhar2H2O; H3O+ + OH-. The sign = is sometimes used in place of the double arrow.


See J. B. Dence, Mathematical Techniques in Chemistry (1975).

equation, chemical: see chemical equation.
A chemical equation is a symbolic representation of a chemical reaction. The coefficients next to the symbols and formulae of entities are the absolute values of the stoichiometric numbers. The first chemical equation was diagrammed by Jean Beguin in 1615.

Reading chemical equations

When reading a chemical equation there are some points to consider.

  • Each side of an equation represents a mixture of chemicals. The mixture is written as a set of molecular formulas, separated by + symbols.
  • Each formula is preceded by an optional scalar number (if no scalar number is written, it is implied that the number is 1). The scalar numbers indicate the relative quantity of molecules in the reaction. For instance, the string 2H2O + 3CH4 represents a mixture containing 2 molecules of H2O for every 3 molecules of CH4.
  • The two sides of the equation are separated by an arrow. If the reaction is non-reversible, a right-arrow (→) is used, indicating that the left side represents the mixture of chemicals before the reaction, and the right side indicates the mixture after the reaction. For a reversible reaction, a two-way arrow is used. For example the equation 4Na + O2 → 2Na2O represents a non-reversible reaction. In this reaction, sodium (Na) and oxygen (O2) are converted to a single molecule, Na2O (containing 2 sodium atoms and 1 oxygen atom). We can also see that for every 4 sodium atoms at the beginning of the reaction, a single O2 molecule will participate, and 2 Na2O molecules will result.
  • A chemical equation does not imply that all reactants are consumed in a chemical process. For instance a limiting reactant determines how far a reaction can go.
  • In an ionic equation balancing of charge also takes place. In a molecular equation all reactants are written as molecules.

Balancing chemical equations

The law of conservation of mass dictates the quantity of each element does not change in a chemical reaction. Thus, each side of the chemical equation must represent the same quantity of any particular element. Similarly, the charge is conserved in a chemical reaction. Therefore, the same charge must be present on both sides of the unbalanced equation.

One balances a chemical equation by changing the scalar number for each molecular formula. Simple chemical equations can be balanced by inspection, that is, by trial and error. Another technique involves solving a system of linear equations.

Example #1. Na + O2 → Na2O

In order for this equation to be balanced, there must be an equal amount of Na on the left hand side as on the right hand side. As it stands now, there is 1 Na on the left but 2 Na's on the right. This problem is solved by putting a 2 in front of the Na on the left hand side:

2Na + O2 → Na2O

In this there are 2 Na atoms on the left and 2 Na atoms on the right. In the next step the oxygen atoms are balanced as well. On the left hand side there are 2 O atoms and the right hand side only has one. This is still an unbalanced equation. To fix this a 2 is added in front of the Na2O on the right hand side. Now the equation reads:

2Na + O2 → 2Na2O

Notice that the 2 on the right hand side is "distributed" to both the Na2 and the O. Currently the left hand side of the equation has 2 Na atoms and 2 O atoms. The right hand side has 4 Na's total and 2 O's. Again, this is a problem, there must be an equal amount of each chemical on both sides. To fix this 2 more Na's are added on the left side. The equation will now look like this:

4Na + O2 → 2Na2O

This equation is a balanced equation because there is an equal number of atoms of each element on the left and right hand sides of the equation.

Example #2.

P4 + O2 → 2P2O5

This equation is not balanced because there is an unequal amount of O's on both sides of the equation. The left hand side has 4 P's and the right hand side has 4 P's. So the P atoms are balanced. The left hand side has 2 O's and the right hand side has 10 O's.

To fix this unbalanced equation a 5 in front of the O2 on the left hand side is added to make 10 O's on both sides resulting in

P4 + 5O2 → 2P2O5

The equation is now balanced because there is an equal amount of substances on the left and the right hand side of the equation.

Ionic Equations

An ionic equation is a chemical equation in which electrolytes are written as dissociated ions. Ionic equations are used for single and double displacement reactions which occur in aqueous solutions. For example in the following precipitation reaction:

CaCl2(aq) + 2AgNO3(aq) → Ca(NO3)2(aq) + 2AgCl(solid)

the full ionic equation would be:

Ca2+ + 2Cl- + 2Ag+ + 2NO3- → Ca2+ + 2NO3- + 2AgCl(solid)

and the net ionic equation would be:

2Cl-(aq) + 2Ag+(aq) → 2AgCl(solid)

or, in reduced balanced form,

Ag+ + Cl- → AgCl(solid).

In this aqueous reaction the Ca2+ and the NO3- ions remain in solution and are not part of the reaction. They are termed spectator ions and do not participate directly in the reaction, as they exist with the same oxidation state on both the reactant and product side of the chemical equation. They are only needed for charge balance of the original reagents.

In a neutralization or acid/base reaction, the net ionic equation will usually be:

H+ + OH- → H2O

There are a few acid/base reactions that produce a precipitate in addition to the water molecule shown above. An example would be the reaction of barium hydroxide with phosphoric acid because the insoluble salt barium phosphate is produced in addition to water.

Double displacement reactions that feature a carbonate reacting with an acid have the net ionic equation:

2 H+ + CO32- → H2O + CO2

Molecular Equations

A molecular equation is a chemical equation written as if all components exist as molecules. This type of equation helps the reader to identify the reagents used to produce the reaction . For example, if a reaction combines sodium chloride (NaCl) and silver nitrate (AgNO3) the resulting molecular equation would look like: NaCl(aq)+AgNO3(aq)→AgCl(s)+NaNO3(aq). This is more useful than an ionic equation when trying to produce the same reaction in a laboratory setting since you know the exact compounds to use in the reaction, sodium chloride (NaCl) and Silver Nitrate (AgNO3).

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