Chemistry » Chemical Reactions and Stoichiometry » Writing and Balancing Chemical Equations

Chemical Equations

In this lesson and the next few, we will be looking at how to write and balance chemical equations. By the end of these lessons, you should be able to:

  • Derive chemical equations from narrative descriptions of chemical reactions.
  • Write and balance chemical equations in molecular, total ionic, and net ionic formats.

Writing Chemical Equations

In Chemistry 101, we introduced the use of element symbols to represent individual atoms. When atoms gain or lose electrons to yield ions, or combine with other atoms to form molecules, their symbols are modified or combined to generate chemical formulas that appropriately represent these species.

Extending this symbolism to represent both the identities and the relative quantities of substances undergoing a chemical (or physical) change involves writing and balancing a chemical equation.

Consider as an example the reaction between one methane molecule (CH4) and two diatomic oxygen molecules (O2) to produce one carbon dioxide molecule (CO2) and two water molecules (H2O). The chemical equation representing this process is provided in the upper half of the figure below, with space-filling molecular models shown in the lower half of the figure.


The reaction between methane and oxygen to yield carbon dioxide and water (shown at bottom) may be represented by a chemical equation using formulas (top). Image credit: OpenStax, Chemistry

This example illustrates the fundamental aspects of any chemical equation:

  1. The substances undergoing reaction are called reactants, and their formulas are placed on the left side of the equation.
  2. The substances generated by the reaction are called products, and their formulas are placed on the right sight of the equation.
  3. Plus signs (+) separate individual reactant and product formulas, and an arrow \((→)\) separates the reactant and product (left and right) sides of the equation.
  4. The relative numbers of reactant and product species are represented by coefficients (numbers placed immediately to the left of each formula). A coefficient of 1 is typically omitted.

It is common practice to use the smallest possible whole-number coefficients in a chemical equation, as is done in this example. Realize, however, that these coefficients represent the relative numbers of reactants and products, and, therefore, they may be correctly interpreted as ratios.

Methane and oxygen react to yield carbon dioxide and water in a 1:2:1:2 ratio. This ratio is satisfied if the numbers of these molecules are, respectively, 1-2-1-2, or 2-4-2-4, or 3-6-3-6, and so on (see figure below).


Regardless of the absolute numbers of molecules involved, the ratios between numbers of molecules of each species that react (the reactants) and molecules of each species that form (the products) are the same and are given by the chemical reaction equation. Image credit: OpenStax, Chemistry

Likewise, these coefficients may be interpreted with regard to any amount (number) unit, and so this equation may be correctly read in many ways, including:

  • One methane molecule and two oxygen molecules react to yield one carbon dioxide molecule and two water molecules.
  • One dozen methane molecules and two dozen oxygen molecules react to yield one dozen carbon dioxide molecules and two dozen water molecules.
  • One mole of methane molecules and 2 moles of oxygen molecules react to yield 1 mole of carbon dioxide molecules and 2 moles of water molecules.

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