Formula Mass for Ionic Compounds
Ionic compounds are composed of discrete cations and anions combined in ratios to yield electrically neutral bulk matter. The formula mass for an ionic compound is calculated in the same way as the formula mass for covalent compounds: by summing the average atomic masses of all the atoms in the compound’s formula. Keep in mind, however, that the formula for an ionic compound does not represent the composition of a discrete molecule, so it may not correctly be referred to as the “molecular mass.”
As an example, consider sodium chloride, NaCl, the chemical name for common table salt. Sodium chloride is an ionic compound composed of sodium cations, Na+, and chloride anions, Cl−, combined in a 1:1 ratio. The formula mass for this compound is computed as 58.44 amu (see figure below).
Note that the average masses of neutral sodium and chlorine atoms were used in this computation, rather than the masses for sodium cations and chlorine anions. This approach is perfectly acceptable when computing the formula mass of an ionic compound. Even though a sodium cation has a slightly smaller mass than a sodium atom (since it is missing an electron), this difference will be offset by the fact that a chloride anion is slightly more massive than a chloride atom (due to the extra electron). Moreover, the mass of an electron is negligibly small with respect to the mass of a typical atom.
Even when calculating the mass of an isolated ion, the missing or additional electrons can generally be ignored, since their contribution to the overall mass is negligible, reflected only in the nonsignificant digits that will be lost when the computed mass is properly rounded. The few exceptions to this guideline are very light ions derived from elements with precisely known atomic masses.
Computing Formula Mass for an Ionic Compound
Aluminum sulfate, Al2(SO4)3, is an ionic compound that is used in the manufacture of paper and in various water purification processes. What is the formula mass (amu) of this compound?
The formula for this compound indicates it contains Al3+ and SO42− ions combined in a 2:3 ratio. For purposes of computing a formula mass, it is helpful to rewrite the formula in the simpler format, Al2S3O12. Following the approach outlined above, the formula mass for this compound is calculated as follows: