4 Properties of Materials, Chemical Reactions, and Heat

The characteristics that distinguish one substance from another are called properties. A physical property is a characteristic of matter that is not associated with a change in its chemical composition. Familiar examples of physical properties include density, color, hardness, melting and boiling points, and electrical conductivity. Some physical properties, such as density and color, may be observed without changing the physical state of the matter. Other physical properties, such as the melting temperature of iron or the freezing temperature of water, can only be observed as matter undergoes a physical change.

Physical and Chemical Changes

A physical change is a change in the state or properties of matter without any accompanying change in the chemical identities of the substances contained in the matter. Physical changes are observed when wax melts, when sugar dissolves in coffee, and when steam condenses into liquid water (Figure 4.1). Other examples of physical changes include magnetizing and demagnetizing metals (as is done with common anti-theft security tags) and grinding solids into powders (which can sometimes yield noticeable changes in color). In each of these examples, there is a change in the physical state, form, or properties of the substance, but no change in its chemical composition.


Figure A is a photograph of butter melting in a pot on a stove. Figure B is a photograph of something being heated on a stove in a pot. Water droplets are forming on the underside of a glass cover that has been placed over the pot.

Figure 4.1 (a) Wax undergoes a physical change when solid wax is heated and forms liquid wax. (b) Steam condensing inside a cooking pot is a physical change, as water vapor is changed into liquid water. (credit a: modification of work by “95jb14”/Wikimedia Commons; credit b: modification of work by “mjneuby”/Flickr)

The change of one type of matter into another type (or the inability to change) is a chemical property. Examples of chemical properties include flammability, toxicity, acidity, and many other types of reactivity. Iron, for example, combines with oxygen in the presence of water to form rust; chromium does not oxidize (Figure 4.2). Nitroglycerin is very dangerous because it explodes easily; neon poses almost no hazard because it is very unreactive.


Figure A is a photo of metal machinery that is now mostly covered with reddish orange rust. Figure B shows the silver colored chrome parts of a motorcycle. One of the parts is so shiny that you can see a reflection of the surrounding street and buildings.

Figure 4.2 (a) One of the chemical properties of iron is that it rusts; (b) one of the chemical properties of chromium is that it does not. (credit a: modification of work by Tony Hisgett; credit b: modification of work by “Atoma”/Wikimedia Commons)

A chemical change always produces one or more types of matter that differ from the matter present before the change. The formation of rust is a chemical change because rust is a different kind of matter than the iron, oxygen, and water present before the rust formed. The explosion of nitroglycerin is a chemical change because the gases produced are very different kinds of matter from the original substance. Other examples of chemical changes include reactions that are performed in a lab (such as copper reacting with nitric acid), all forms of combustion (burning), and food being cooked, digested, or rotting (Figure 4.3).


Figure A is a photo of the flask containing a blue liquid. Several strands of brownish copper are immersed into the blue liquid. There is a brownish gas rising from the liquid and filling the upper part of the flask. Figure B shows a burning match. Figure C shows red meat being cooked in a pan. Figure D shows a small bunch of yellow bananas that have many black spots.

Figure 4.3 (a) Copper and nitric acid undergo a chemical change to form copper nitrate and brown, gaseous nitrogen dioxide. (b) During the combustion of a match, cellulose in the match and oxygen from the air undergo a chemical change to form carbon dioxide and water vapor. (c) Cooking red meat causes a number of chemical changes, including the oxidation of iron in myoglobin that results in the familiar red-to-brown color change. (d) A banana turning brown is a chemical change as new, darker (and less tasty) substances form. (credit b: modification of work by Jeff Turner; credit c: modification of work by Gloria Cabada-Leman; credit d: modification of work by Roberto Verzo)

Balancing Equations

The chemical equation described in section 4.1 is balanced, meaning that equal numbers of atoms for each element involved in the reaction are represented on the reactant (left) and product (right) sides. This is a requirement the equation must satisfy to be consistent with the law of conservation of matter. It may be confirmed by simply summing the numbers of atoms on either side of the arrow and comparing these sums to ensure they are equal. Note that the number of atoms for a given element is calculated by multiplying the coefficient of any formula containing that element by the element’s subscript in the formula. If an element appears in more than one formula on a given side of the equation, the number of atoms represented in each must be computed and then added together. For example, both product species in the example reaction, CO2 and H2O, contain the element oxygen, and so the number of oxygen atoms on the product side of the equation is

(1 CO2 molecule × 2 O atoms per CO2 molecule) + (2 H2O molecules × 1 O atom per H2O molecule) = 4 O atoms

The equation for the reaction between methane and oxygen to yield carbon dioxide and water is confirmed to be balanced per this approach, as shown here: CH4 + 2O2⟶CO2 + 2H2O

Element Reactants Products Balanced?
C 1×1 = 1 1×1 = 1 1 = 1, yes
H 4×1 = 4 2×2 = 4 4 = 4, yes
O 2×2 = 4 (1×2) + (2×1) = 4 4 = 4, yes

A balanced chemical equation often may be derived from a qualitative description of some chemical reaction by a fairly simple approach known as balancing by inspection. Consider as an example the decomposition of water to yield molecular hydrogen and oxygen. This process is represented qualitatively by an unbalanced chemical equation: H2O⟶H2 + O2 (unbalanced)

Comparing the number of H and O atoms on either side of this equation confirms its imbalance:

Element Reactants Products Balanced?
H 1×2 = 2 1×2 = 2 2 = 2, yes
O 1×1 = 1 1×2 = 2 1 ≠ 2, no

The numbers of H atoms on the reactant and product sides of the equation are equal, but the numbers of O atoms are not. To achieve balance, the coefficients of the equation may be changed as needed. Note that the coefficients must be whole numbers and cannot be fractions or decimals. Keep in mind, of course, that the formula subscripts define, in part, the identity of the substance, and so these cannot be changed without altering the qualitative meaning of the equation. For example, changing the reactant formula from H2O to H2O2 would yield balance in the number of atoms, but doing so also changes the reactant’s identity (it’s now hydrogen peroxide and not water). The O atom balance may be achieved by changing the coefficient for H2O to 2.

2H2O⟶H2 + O2 (unbalanced)

Element Reactants Products Balanced?
H 2×2 = 4 1×2 = 2 4 ≠ 2, no
O 2×1 = 2 1×2 = 2 2 = 2, yes

The H atom balance was upset by this change, but it is easily reestablished by changing the coefficient for the H2 product to 2.

2H2O⟶2H2 + O2 (balanced)

Element Reactants Products Balanced?
H 2×2 = 4 2×2 = 4 4 = 4, yes
O 2×1 = 2 1×2 = 2 2 = 2, yes

These coefficients yield equal numbers of both H and O atoms on the reactant and product sides, and the balanced equation is, therefore:

2H2O⟶2H2 + O2

Check Your Learning: Write a balanced equation for the decomposition of ammonium nitrate to form molecular nitrogen, molecular oxygen, and water. (Hint: Balance oxygen last, since it is present in more than one molecule on the right side of the equation.)

ANSWER: 2NH4NO3⟶2N2 + O2 + 4H2O

LINK TO LEARNING: Use this interactive tutorial by PhET for additional practice balancing equations: Balancing Chemical Equations.

Types of Chemical Reactions

Humans interact with one another in various and complex ways, and we classify these interactions according to common patterns of behavior. When two humans exchange information, we say they are communicating. When they hit each other with their fists, we say they are fighting. Faced with a wide range of varied interactions between chemical substances, scientists have likewise found it convenient (or even necessary) to classify chemical interactions by identifying common patterns of reactivity. This module will provide an introduction to three of the most prevalent types of chemical reactions: precipitation, acid-base, and oxidation-reduction.

Precipitation Reactions

A precipitation reaction is one in which dissolved substances react to form one (or more) solid products. Many reactions of this type involve the exchange of ions between ionic compounds in aqueous solution and are sometimes referred to as double displacement, double replacement, or metathesis reactions. These reactions are common in nature and are responsible for the formation of coral reefs in ocean waters and kidney stones in animals. They are used widely in industry for production of a number of commodity and specialty chemicals.

The extent to which a substance may be dissolved in water, or any solvent, is quantitatively expressed as its solubility, defined as the maximum concentration of a substance that can be achieved under specified conditions. Substances with relatively large solubilities are said to be soluble. A substance will precipitate when solution conditions are such that its concentration exceeds its solubility. Substances with relatively low solubilities are said to be insoluble, and these are the substances that readily precipitate from solution.

Lead iodide is a bright yellow solid that was formerly used as an artist’s pigment known as iodine yellow (Figure 4.4). The properties of pure PbI2 crystals make them useful for fabrication of X-ray and gamma ray detectors.



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