What triggers a chemical reaction?

You know how sometimes you go to bake a cake but your bananas have all gone rotten, your utensils have rusted, you trip and pour all of your baking soda into the vinegar jug, and then your oven explodes? My friend, you and your chemical reactions have fallen victim to enthalpy and entropy and, boy, are they forces to be reckoned with. Now, your reactants are all products. So, what are these “E” words, and what’s their big idea? Let’s start with enthalpy, an increase or decrease of energy during a chemical reaction.

Every molecule has a certain amount of chemical potential energy stored within the bonds between its atoms. Chemicals with more energy are less stable, and thus, more likely to react. Let’s visualize the energy flow in a reaction, the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen, by playing a round of crazy golf. Our goal is to get a ball, the reactant, up a small rise and down the other much steeper slope. Where the hill goes up, we need to add energy to the ball, and where it goes down, the ball releases energy into its surroundings.

The hole represents the product, or result of the reaction. When the reaction period ends, the ball is inside the hole, and we have our product: water. This, like when our oven exploded, is an exothermic reaction, meaning that the chemical’s final energy is less than its starting energy, and the difference has been added to the surrounding environment as light and heat. We can also play out the opposite type of reaction, an endothermic reaction, where the final energy is greater than the starting energy.

That’s what we were trying to achieve by baking our cake. The added heat from the oven would change the chemical structure of the proteins in the eggs and various compounds in the butter. So that’s enthalpy. As you might suspect, exothermic reactions are more likely to happen than endothermic ones because they require less energy to occur. But there’s another independent factor that can make reactions happen: entropy.

Entropy measures a chemical’s randomness. Here’s an enormous pyramid of golf balls. Its ordered structure means it has low entropy. However, when it collapses, we have chaos everywhere, balls bouncing high and wide. So much so that some even go over the hill. This shift to instability, or higher entropy, can allow reactions to happen. As with the golf balls, in actual chemicals this transition from structure to disorder gets some reactants past the hump and lets them start a reaction.

You can see both enthalpy and entropy at play when you go to light a campfire to cook dinner. Your match adds enough energy to activate the exothermic reaction of combustion, converting the high-energy combustible material in the wood to lower energy carbon dioxide and water. Entropy also increases and helps the reaction along because the neat, organized log of wood is now converted into randomly moving water vapor and carbon dioxide. The energy shed by this exothermic reaction powers the endothermic reaction of cooking your dinner. Bon appétit!

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