Shifting Equilibria: Le Châtelier’s Principle
As we saw in the previous topic, reactions proceed in both directions (reactants go to products and products go to reactants). We can tell a reaction is at equilibrium if the reaction quotient (Q) is equal to the equilibrium constant (K). We next address what happens when a system at equilibrium is disturbed so that Q is no longer equal to K.
If a system at equilibrium is subjected to a perturbance or stress (such as a change in concentration) the position of equilibrium changes. Since this stress affects the concentrations of the reactants and the products, the value of Q will no longer equal the value of K. To re-establish equilibrium, the system will either shift toward the products (if Q < K) or the reactants (if Q > K) until Q returns to the same value as K.
This process is described by Le Châtelier’s principle: When a chemical system at equilibrium is disturbed, it returns to equilibrium by counteracting the disturbance. As described in the previous paragraph, the disturbance causes a change in Q; the reaction will shift to re-establish Q = K.