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Chemistry LibreTexts

1.3.5: Exothermic and Endothermic Reactions

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Describe three ways to speed up a reaction.
    • Differentiate between reversible exothermic, irreversible exothermic, and endothermic reactions and draw appropriate graphs to represent each which include axis labels, activation energy, and the effect a catalyst would have on the graph.


    Energy can be defined as the capacity to supply heat or do work. One type of work (w) is the process of causing matter to move against an opposing force. For example, we do work when we inflate a bicycle tire—we move matter (the air in the pump) against the opposing force of the air surrounding the tire.

    Like matter, energy comes in different types. One scheme classifies energy into two types: potential energy, the energy an object has because of its relative position, composition, or condition, and kinetic energy, the energy that an object possesses because of its motion. Water at the top of a waterfall or dam has potential energy because of its position; when it flows downward through generators, it has kinetic energy that can be used to do work and produce electricity in a hydroelectric plant (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). A battery has potential energy because the chemicals within it can produce electricity that can do work.

    Two pictures are shown and labeled a and b. Picture a shows a large waterfall with water falling from a high elevation at the top of the falls to a lower elevation. The second picture is a view looking down into the Hoover Dam. Water is shown behind the high wall of the dam on one side and at the base of the dam on the other.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): (a) Water that is higher in elevation, for example, at the top of Victoria Falls, has a higher potential energy than water at a lower elevation. As the water falls, some of its potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. (b) If the water flows through generators at the bottom of a dam, such as the Hoover Dam shown here, its kinetic energy is converted into electrical energy. (credit a: modification of work by Steve Jurvetson; credit b: modification of work by “curimedia”/Wikimedia commons).

    Energy can be converted from one form into another, but all of the energy present before a change occurs always exists in some form after the change is completed. This observation is expressed in the law of conservation of energy: during a chemical or physical change, energy can be neither created nor destroyed, although it can be changed in form. (This is also one version of the first law of thermodynamics, as you will learn later.)

    When one substance is converted into another, there is always an associated conversion of one form of energy into another. Heat is usually released or absorbed, but sometimes the conversion involves light, electrical energy, or some other form of energy. For example, chemical energy (a type of potential energy) is stored in the molecules that compose gasoline. When gasoline is combusted within the cylinders of a car’s engine, the rapidly expanding gaseous products of this chemical reaction generate mechanical energy (a type of kinetic energy) when they move the cylinders’ pistons.

    According to the law of conservation of matter (seen in an earlier chapter), there is no detectable change in the total amount of matter during a chemical change. When chemical reactions occur, the energy changes are relatively modest and the mass changes are too small to measure, so the laws of conservation of matter and energy hold well. However, in nuclear reactions, the energy changes are much larger (by factors of a million or so), the mass changes are measurable, and matter-energy conversions are significant. This will be examined in more detail in a later chapter on nuclear chemistry. To encompass both chemical and nuclear changes, we combine these laws into one statement: The total quantity of matter and energy in the universe is fixed.

    Thermal Energy, Temperature, and Heat

    Thermal energy is kinetic energy associated with the random motion of atoms and molecules. Temperature is a quantitative measure of “hot” or “cold.” When the atoms and molecules in an object are moving or vibrating quickly, they have a higher average kinetic energy (KE), and we say that the object is “hot.” When the atoms and molecules are moving slowly, they have lower KE, and we say that the object is “cold” (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Assuming that no chemical reaction or phase change (such as melting or vaporizing) occurs, increasing the amount of thermal energy in a sample of matter will cause its temperature to increase. And, assuming that no chemical reaction or phase change (such as condensation or freezing) occurs, decreasing the amount of thermal energy in a sample of matter will cause its temperature to decrease.

    'Two molecular drawings are shown and labeled a and b. Drawing a is a box containing fourteen red spheres that are surrounded by lines indicating that the particles are moving rapidly. This drawing has a label that reads “Hot water.” Drawing b depicts another box of equal size that also contains fourteen spheres, but these are blue. They are all surrounded by smaller lines that depict some particle motion, but not as much as in drawing a. This drawing has a label that reads “Cold water.”

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): (a) The molecules in a sample of hot water move more rapidly than (b) those in a sample of cold water.

    Most substances expand as their temperature increases and contract as their temperature decreases. This property can be used to measure temperature changes, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\). The operation of many thermometers depends on the expansion and contraction of substances in response to temperature changes.

    A picture labeled a is shown as well as a pair of drawings labeled b. Picture a shows the lower portion of an alcohol thermometer. The thermometer has a printed scale to the left of the tube in the center that reads from negative forty degrees at the bottom to forty degrees at the top. It also has a scale printed to the right of the tube that reads from negative thirty degrees at the bottom to thirty five degrees at the top. On both scales, the volume of the alcohol in the tube reads between nine and ten degrees. The two images labeled b both depict a metal strip coiled into a spiral and composed of brass and steel. The left coil, which is loosely coiled, is labeled along its upper edge with the 30 degrees C and 10 degrees C. The end of the coil is near the 30 degrees C label. The right hand coil is much more tightly wound and the end is near the 10 degree C label. Bimetal_coil_reacts_to_lighter.gif
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (a) In an alcohol or mercury thermometer, the liquid (dyed red for visibility) expands when heated and contracts when cooled, much more so than the glass tube that contains the liquid. (b) In a bimetallic thermometer, two different metals (such as brass and steel) form a two-layered strip. When heated or cooled, one of the metals (brass) expands or contracts more than the other metal (steel), causing the strip to coil or uncoil. Both types of thermometers have a calibrated scale that indicates the temperature. (credit a: modification of work by “dwstucke”/Flickr). (c) The demonstration allows one to view the effects of heating and cooling a coiled bimetallic strip.A bimetallic coil from a thermometer reacts to the heat from a lighter, by uncoiling and then coiling back up when the lighter is removed. Animation used with permission from Hustvedt (via Wikipedia)

    Heat (q) is the transfer of thermal energy between two bodies at different temperatures. Heat flow (a redundant term, but one commonly used) increases the thermal energy of one body and decreases the thermal energy of the other. Suppose we initially have a high temperature (and high thermal energy) substance (H) and a low temperature (and low thermal energy) substance (L). The atoms and molecules in H have a higher average KE than those in L. If we place substance H in contact with substance L, the thermal energy will flow spontaneously from substance H to substance L. The temperature of substance H will decrease, as will the average KE of its molecules; the temperature of substance L will increase, along with the average KE of its molecules. Heat flow will continue until the two substances are at the same temperature (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)).

    Three drawings are shown and labeled a, b, and c, respectively. The first drawing labeled a depicts two boxes, with a space in between and the pair is captioned “Different temperatures.” The left hand box is labeled H and holds fourteen well-spaced red spheres with lines drawn around them to indicate rapid motion. The right hand box is labeled L and depicts fourteen blue spheres that are closer together than the red spheres and have smaller lines around them showing less particle motion. The second drawing labeled b depicts two boxes that are touching one another. The left box is labeled H and contains fourteen maroon spheres that are spaced evenly apart. There are tiny lines around each sphere depicting particle movement. The right box is labeled L and holds fourteen purple spheres that are slightly closer together than the maroon spheres. There are also tiny lines around each sphere depicting particle movement. A black arrow points from the left box to the right box and the pair of diagrams is captioned “Contact.” The third drawing labeled c, is labeled “Thermal equilibrium.” There are two boxes shown in contact with one another. Both boxes contain fourteen purple spheres with small lines around them depicting moderate movement. The left box is labeled H and the right box is labeled L.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): (a) Substances H and L are initially at different temperatures, and their atoms have different average kinetic energies. (b) When they are put into contact with each other, collisions between the molecules result in the transfer of kinetic (thermal) energy from the hotter to the cooler matter. (c) The two objects reach “thermal equilibrium” when both substances are at the same temperature, and their molecules have the same average kinetic energy.

    Matter undergoing chemical reactions and physical changes can release or absorb heat. A change that releases heat is called an exothermic process. For example, the combustion reaction that occurs when using an oxyacetylene torch is an exothermic process—this process also releases energy in the form of light as evidenced by the torch’s flame (Figure \(\PageIndex{6a}\)). A reaction or change that absorbs heat is an endothermic process. A cold pack used to treat muscle strains provides an example of an endothermic process. When the substances in the cold pack (water and a salt like ammonium nitrate) are brought together, the resulting process absorbs heat, leading to the sensation of cold.

    Two pictures are shown and labeled a and b. Picture a shows a metal railroad tie being cut with the flame of an acetylene torch. Picture b shows a chemical cold pack containing ammonium nitrate.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): (a) An oxyacetylene torch produces heat by the combustion of acetylene in oxygen. The energy released by this exothermic reaction heats and then melts the metal being cut. The sparks are tiny bits of the molten metal flying away. (b) A cold pack uses an endothermic process to create the sensation of cold. (credit a: modification of work by “Skatebiker”/Wikimedia commons).

    Each chemical bond is stored energy. For a reaction to occur, the bonds of the reactants must be broken. This process always requires energy. At the same time, the bonds between the products must form, this process always releases energy. If the energy required to break the bonds of the reactants is less than that given off by the formation of bonds in the products, the excess energy will be released from the reaction. If the energy required to break the bonds of the reactants is greater than that given off by the formation of bonds in the products, the reaction will need an external supply of energy and the reaction will be endothermic.


    Activation energy: Also called energy of activation. It is the amount of energy required to get the reaction started. Some reactions require very little energy, in others a great deal of energy is required.

    Catalyst: Is a substance that when added to the reaction reduces the amount of energy required to start the reaction, but itself does not become part of the product and thus can be re-used in the reaction. If a catalyst is involved in a reaction, it is written above the arrow, as it does not become a part of the product.


    Sucrose + H2O → Glucose + fructose


    Reversible reaction: The energy hill may be approached from either side.

    Irreversible reaction: The change in energy is so great, that the energy hill cannot be approached from the opposite side.



    endothermic process
    chemical reaction or physical change that absorbs heat
    exothermic process
    chemical reaction or physical change that releases heat
    heat (q)
    transfer of thermal energy between two bodies
    kinetic energy
    energy of a moving body, in joules, equal to \(\dfrac{1}{2}mv^2\) (where m = mass and v = velocity)
    potential energy
    energy of a particle or system of particles derived from relative position, composition, or condition
    thermal energy
    kinetic energy associated with the random motion of atoms and molecules
    study of measuring the amount of heat absorbed or released during a chemical reaction or a physical change

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