formula (in chemistry)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

formula (in chemistry)

formula, in chemistry, an expression showing the chemical composition of a compound. Formulas of compounds are used in writing the equations (see chemical equations) that represent chemical reactions. Compounds are combinations in fixed proportions of the chemical elements. The smallest unit of an element is the atom.

Formulas for Compounds

The formula of a well-known compound, water, is H2O. Water is made up of molecules, and the formula shows that each molecule consists of two atoms of hydrogen, H, bonded to an atom of oxygen, O. The subscript 2 indicates that there are two atoms of hydrogen in the molecule; where no subscript appears, as after the O, the subscript 1 is implied. It should be kept in mind that not all compounds are molecular. For example, sodium chloride, NaCl, is an ionic rather than a molecular compound. Solid sodium chloride consists of a collection of sodium ions and chloride ions arranged in a regular, three-dimensional pattern called a crystalline structure. One cannot say that a certain sodium ion and a certain chloride ion are grouped together into a unit, since each sodium ion is equally associated with all its neighboring chloride ions and each chloride ion is equally associated with all its neighboring sodium ions. The formula NaCl, therefore, cannot be taken as showing the composition of some particular unit, such as a molecule. Rather, it shows the proportion of the atoms of each element making up the compound—in this case, one atom of sodium to every atom of chlorine; such a formula is called an empirical formula.

Molecular and Empirical Formulas

If a compound is molecular, the molecular formula is preferred to the empirical formula since it gives more information. A molecule of glucose, for example, consists of 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms. Its molecular formula, C6H12O6, displays this information explicitly; the empirical formula is CH2O. From the formula one can also deduce the proportion of the atoms of each element making up the compound: one atom of carbon to every two atoms of hydrogen to every one atom of oxygen (6 : 12 : 6=1 : 2 : 1). The empirical formula of glucose, CH2O, shows only the proportion, not the actual number of atoms.

Many compounds may have the same empirical formula. For example, formaldehyde, each molecule of which consists of one carbon atom, two hydrogen atoms, and one oxygen atom, has the molecular formula CH2O, which is identical to the empirical formula of glucose. Another example is furnished by ethyne (acetylene), whose molecular formula is C2H2, and benzene, whose molecular formula is C6H6. Both have the same empirical formula, CH.

In addition to showing the actual number of atoms, molecular formulas are also more useful than empirical formulas in that they explicitly show radicals. For example, the molecular formula for the compound aluminum sulfate, Al2(SO4)3, shows that it contains three sulfate radicals (SO4). The empirical formula, Al2S3O12, does not show this. When only one radical is present in the molecule, the parentheses and subscript are omitted, e.g., CuSO4 for cupric sulfate. Other groups are also shown in molecular formulas, e.g., the water molecules in the mineral chalcanthite (blue vitriol), which consists of cupric sulfate atoms to each of which are attached five water molecules. Its molecular formula is CuSO4·5H2O, its empirical formula CuSO9H10.

Structural Formulas

In many cases, especially with organic compounds, even the molecular formula does not provide enough information to identify a compound, so that structural formulas are needed. For example, both ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and dimethyl ether have the molecular formula C2H6O (see isomer). Their structural formulas are: In these formulas each line represents a single covalent chemical bond. A double bond is represented by a double line and a triple bond by a triple line. In ethene (ethylene), C2H4, the carbon atoms are joined by a double bond. The structural formula of ethene is: (In many representations of structural formulas, the angles of the lines indicating bonds do not necessarily have meaning.) In ethyne (acetylene), C2H2, the carbon atoms are joined by a triple bond. The structural formula of ethyne is:

Semistructural Formulas

Structural formulas are often simplified so that they can be written on a single line; the simplified formulas are often called semistructural formulas. The semistructural formula for ethanol is CH3CH2OH, or more simply C2H5OH. In such a semistructural formula the OH is written explicitly to indicate that the oxygen has a hydrogen bonded to it. The C2H5 indicates that the two carbon atoms are bonded to one another. The semistructural formula for dimethyl ether may be written CH3OCH3. Here the O is placed between the two carbon atoms to show that the carbons are bonded to the oxygen. A carbon often has three hydrogens bonded to it, and the H3 is written after the C. In some cases the H3 is written before the C for clarity; thus the formula for dimethyl ether might be written H3COCH3.

Electron Dot Diagrams

Dots are used in a type of formula called the electron dot diagram, where each pair of dots represents a pair of shared electrons in a covalent bond. The diagrams for ethane (CH3CH3), ethene, and ethyne are:

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

formula (in chemistry)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?