The identity of a substance is defined not only by the types of atoms or ions it contains, but by the quantity of each type of atom or ion. For example, water, H2O, and hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, are alike in that their respective molecules are composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. However, because a hydrogen peroxide molecule contains two oxygen atoms, as opposed to the water molecule, which has only one, the two substances exhibit very different properties.
Today, we possess sophisticated instruments that allow the direct measurement of these defining microscopic traits; however, the same traits were originally derived from the measurement of macroscopic properties (the masses and volumes of bulk quantities of matter) using relatively simple tools (balances and volumetric glassware). This experimental approach required the introduction of a new unit for amount of substances, the mole, which remains indispensable in modern chemical science.
What is a mole?
The mole is an amount unit similar to familiar units like pair, dozen, gross, etc. It provides a specific measure of the number of atoms or molecules in a bulk sample of matter. A mole is defined as the amount of substance containing the same number of discrete entities (such as atoms, molecules, and ions) as the number of atoms in a sample of pure 12C weighing exactly 12 g.
One Latin connotation for the word “mole” is “large mass” or “bulk,” which is consistent with its use as the name for this unit. The mole provides a link between an easily measured macroscopic property, bulk mass, and an extremely important fundamental property, number of atoms, molecules, and so forth.
What is Avogadro’s number?
The number of entities composing a mole has been experimentally determined to be 6.02214179 × 1023, a fundamental constant named Avogadro’s number (NA) or the Avogadro constant in honor of Italian scientist Amedeo Avogadro. This constant is properly reported with an explicit unit of “per mole,” a conveniently rounded version being 6.022 × 1023/mol.
What is molar mass?
Consistent with its definition as an amount unit, 1 mole of any element contains the same number of atoms as 1 mole of any other element. The masses of 1 mole of different elements, however, are different, since the masses of the individual atoms are drastically different. The molar mass of an element (or compound) is the mass in grams of 1 mole of that substance, a property expressed in units of grams per mole (g/mol) (see figure below).
Because the definitions of both the mole and the atomic mass unit are based on the same reference substance, 12C, the molar mass of any substance is numerically equivalent to its atomic or formula weight in amu. Per the amu definition, a single 12C atom weighs 12 amu (its atomic mass is 12 amu).
According to the definition of the mole, 12 g of 12C contains 1 mole of 12C atoms (its molar mass is 12 g/mol). This relationship holds for all elements, since their atomic masses are measured relative to that of the amu-reference substance, 12C. Extending this principle, the molar mass of a compound in grams is likewise numerically equivalent to its formula mass in amu (see image below).
|Element||Average Atomic Mass (amu)||Molar Mass (g/mol)||Atoms/Mole|
|C||12.01||12.01||6.022 × 1023|
|H||1.008||1.008||6.022 × 1023|
|O||16.00||16.00||6.022 × 1023|
|Na||22.99||22.99||6.022 × 1023|
|Cl||35.45||33.45||6.022 × 1023|
While atomic mass and molar mass are numerically equivalent, keep in mind that they are vastly different in terms of scale, as represented by the vast difference in the magnitudes of their respective units (amu versus g). To appreciate the enormity of the mole, consider a small drop of water weighing about 0.03 g (see image below).
Although this represents just a tiny fraction of 1 mole of water (~18 g i.e. a mass of 2 g (for 2 moles of H atoms) + 16 g (for one mole O atom) = 18 g.), it contains more water molecules than can be clearly imagined. If the molecules were distributed equally among the roughly seven billion people on earth, each person would receive more than 100 billion molecules.
Video: How big is a mole?
The mole is used in chemistry to represent 6.022 × 1023 of something, but it can be difficult to conceptualize such a large number. Watch this TED-Ed video to learn the incredible magnitude of the mole, and how something so big can help us calculate the tiniest particles in the world.