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Chemistry LibreTexts

3.4: Chemical Formulas

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  • Page ID
    98535
  • Skills to Develop

    • Symbolize the composition of molecules using molecular formulas and empirical formulas
    • Represent the bonding arrangement of atoms within molecules using structural formulas

    Just as we represent individual atoms and elements with symbols, we use combinations of atomic symbols to represent compounds in chemical formulas. Chemical formulas give a shorthand representation of the amounts of different elements present in a chemical compound and, to a trained eye, can also tell you something about the type of chemical bonding in the compound. Compounds are formed when two or more elements chemically combine, resulting in the formation of bonds. A chemical bond is an attraction between atoms or ions that holds them together in a molecule or an ionic crystal. For example, hydrogen and oxygen can react to form water (a molecular compound), and sodium and chlorine can react to form table salt (an ionic compound). We will discuss molecular compounds first.

    Molecular Formulas

    A molecule is a group of atoms bonded together in a particular arrangement that then functions as the smallest individual unit of a compound. A molecular formula is a representation of a molecule that uses chemical symbols to indicate the types of atoms followed by subscripts to show the number of atoms of each type in the molecule (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). A subscript is used only when more than one atom of a given type is present. Molecular formulas are also used as abbreviations for the names of compounds.

    The structural formula for a compound gives the same information as its molecular formula (the types and numbers of atoms in the molecule) but also shows how the atoms are connected in the molecule. The structural formula for methane contains symbols for one C atom and four H atoms, indicating the number of atoms in the molecule (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The lines represent the bonds that hold the atoms together. We will discuss chemical bonds and see how to predict the arrangement of atoms in a molecule later in this course. For now, simply know that the lines are an indication of how the atoms are connected in a molecule. More elaborate pictorial representations of molecules can also be constructed. A ball-and-stick model shows the geometric arrangement of the atoms in 3D space with atomic sizes not to scale, while a space-filling model shows the relative sizes of the atoms.

    Figure A shows C H subscript 4. Figure B shows a carbon atom that is bonded to four hydrogen atoms at right angles: one above, one to the left, one to the right, and one below. Figure C shows a 3-D, ball-and-stick model of the carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms. Figure D shows a space-filling model of a carbon atom with hydrogen atoms partially embedded into the surface of the carbon atom.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A methane molecule can be represented as (a) a molecular formula, (b) a structural formula, (c) a ball-and-stick model, and (d) a space-filling model. Carbon and hydrogen atoms are represented by black and white spheres, respectively.

    Although many elements consist of discrete, individual atoms, some exist as molecules made up of two or more atoms of the same element chemically bonded together. For example, most samples of the elements hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are composed of molecules that contain two atoms each (called diatomic molecules) and thus have the molecular formulas H2, O2, and N2, respectively. Other elements commonly found as diatomic molecules are fluorine (F2), chlorine (Cl2), bromine (Br2), and iodine (I2). The most common form of the element sulfur is composed of molecules that consist of eight atoms of sulfur; its molecular formula is S8 (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    Figure A shows eight sulfur atoms, symbolized with the letter S, that are bonded to each other to form an octagon. Figure B shows a 3-D, ball-and-stick model of the arrangement of the sulfur atoms. The shape is clearly not octagonal as it is represented in the structural formula. Figure C is a space-filling model that shows each sulfur atom is partially embedded into the sulfur atom it bonds with.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A molecule of sulfur is composed of eight sulfur atoms and is therefore written as S8. It can be represented as (a) a structural formula, (b) a ball-and-stick model, and (c) a space-filling model. Sulfur atoms are represented by yellow spheres.

    It is important to note that a subscript following a symbol and a number in front of a symbol do not represent the same thing; for example, H2 and 2H represent distinctly different species. H2 is a molecular formula; it represents a diatomic molecule of hydrogen, consisting of two atoms of the element that are chemically bonded together. The expression 2H, on the other hand, indicates two separate hydrogen atoms that are not combined as a unit. The expression 2H2 represents two molecules of diatomic hydrogen (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)).

    This figure shows four diagrams. The diagram for H shows a single, white sphere and is labeled one H atom. The diagram for 2 H shows two white spheres that are not bonded together. It is labeled 2 H atoms. The diagram for H subscript 2 shows two white spheres bonded together. It is labeled one H subscript 2 molecule. The diagram for 2 H subscript 2 shows two sets of bonded, white spheres. It is labeled 2 H subscript 2 molecules.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The symbols H, 2H, H2, and 2H2 represent very different entities.

    Empirical Formulas

    Some compounds do not form individual molecules but rather are bonded together in an extended network structure. This is especially the case with ionic compounds such as table salt, NaCl. In the case of salt, the chemical formula does not indicate that sodium and chlorine atoms pair up in individual Na-Cl molecules. Rather, the composition of this compound is represented by an empirical formula, which indicates the types of atoms present and the simplest whole-number ratio of the number of atoms (or ions) in the compound. They are called "empirical" because they can be directly determined by experiment, simply measuring the relative amounts of each element in a compound. In the case of NaCl, the empirical formula indicates that sodium and chlorine atoms are present in a 1:1 ratio. As another example, titanium dioxide (used as pigment in white paint and in the thick, white, blocking type of sunscreen) has an empirical formula of TiO2. This identifies the elements titanium (Ti) and oxygen (O) as the constituents of titanium dioxide, and indicates the presence of twice as many atoms of the element oxygen as atoms of the element titanium (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)).

    Figure A shows a photo of a person applying suntan lotion to his or her lower leg. Figure B shows a 3-D ball-and-stick model of the molecule titanium dioxide, which involves a complicated interlocking of many titanium and oxygen atoms. The titanium atoms in the molecule are shown as silver spheres and the oxygen atoms are shown as red spheres. There are twice as many oxygen atoms as titanium atoms in the molecule.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (a) The white compound titanium dioxide provides effective protection from the sun. (b) A crystal of titanium dioxide, TiO2, contains titanium and oxygen in a ratio of 1 to 2. The titanium atoms are gray and the oxygen atoms are red. (credit a: modification of work by “osseous”/Flickr).

    Empirical formulas can also be derived for molecular compounds, where the subscripts would represent the simplest ratio of elements in the compound rather than the actual numbers of atoms of each element in a molecule of the compound (the molecular formula). The empirical and molecular formulas may be identical or different. In many cases, the molecular formula of a substance is derived from experimental determination of both its empirical formula and its molecular mass (the sum of atomic masses for all atoms composing the molecule). For example, it can be determined experimentally that benzene contains two elements, carbon (C) and hydrogen (H), and that for every carbon atom in benzene, there is one hydrogen atom. Thus, the empirical formula is CH. An experimental determination of the molecular mass reveals that a molecule of benzene contains six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms, so the molecular formula for benzene is C6H6 (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)).

    Figure A shows that benzene is composed of six carbons shaped like a hexagon. Every other bond between the carbon atoms is a double bond. Each carbon also has a single bonded hydrogen atom. Figure B shows a 3-D, ball-and-stick drawing of benzene. The six carbon atoms are black spheres while the six hydrogen atoms are smaller, white spheres. Figure C is a space-filling model of benzene which shows that most of the interior space is occupied by the carbon atoms. The hydrogen atoms are embedded in the outside surface of the carbon atoms. Figure d shows a small vial filled with benzene which appears to be clear.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Benzene, C6H6, is produced during oil refining and has many industrial uses. A benzene molecule can be represented as (a) a structural formula, (b) a ball-and-stick model, and (c) a space-filling model. (d) Benzene is a clear liquid. (credit d: modification of work by Sahar Atwa).

    If we know a compound’s formula, we can easily determine the empirical formula. (This is somewhat of an academic exercise; the reverse chronology is generally followed in actual practice.) For example, the molecular formula for acetic acid, the component that gives vinegar its sharp taste, is C2H4O2. This formula indicates that a molecule of acetic acid (Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)) contains two carbon atoms, four hydrogen atoms, and two oxygen atoms. The ratio of atoms is 2:4:2. Dividing by the lowest common denominator (2) gives the simplest, whole-number ratio of atoms, 1:2:1, so the empirical formula is CH2O. Note that a molecular formula is always a whole-number multiple of an empirical formula.

    Figure A shows a jug of distilled, white vinegar. Figure B shows a structural formula for acetic acid which contains two carbon atoms connected by a single bond. The left carbon atom forms single bonds with three hydrogen atoms. The right carbon atom forms a double bond with an oxygen atom. The right carbon atom also forms a single bond with an oxygen atom. This oxygen forms a single bond with a hydrogen atom. Figure C shows a 3-D ball-and-stick model of acetic acid.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): (a) Vinegar contains acetic acid, C2H4O2, which has an empirical formula of CH2O. It can be represented as (b) a structural formula and (c) as a ball-and-stick model. (credit a: modification of work by “HomeSpot HQ”/Flickr)

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\): Empirical and Molecular Formulas

    Molecules of glucose (blood sugar) contain 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms. What are the molecular and empirical formulas of glucose?

    Solution

    The molecular formula is C6H12O6 because one molecule actually contains 6 C, 12 H, and 6 O atoms. The simplest whole-number ratio of C to H to O atoms in glucose is 1:2:1, so the empirical formula is CH2O.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    A molecule of metaldehyde (a pesticide used for snails and slugs) contains 8 carbon atoms, 16 hydrogen atoms, and 4 oxygen atoms. What are the molecular and empirical formulas of metaldehyde? 

    Answer

    Molecular formula, C8H16O4; empirical formula, C2H4O

    Isomers

    It is important to be aware that it may be possible for the same atoms to be arranged in different ways: Compounds with the same molecular formula may have different atom-to-atom bonding and therefore different structures. For example, could there be another compound with the same formula as acetic acid, C2H4O2? And if so, what could be the structure of its molecules?

    If you predicted that another compound with the formula C2H4O2 could exist, then you demonstrated good chemical insight and are correct. Two C atoms, four H atoms, and two O atoms can also be arranged to form methyl formate, which is used in manufacturing, as an insecticide, and for quick-drying finishes. Methyl formate molecules have one of the oxygen atoms between the two carbon atoms, differing from the arrangement in acetic acid molecules. Acetic acid and methyl formate are examples of isomers—compounds with the same chemical formula but different molecular structures (Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\)). Note that this small difference in the arrangement of the atoms has a major effect on their respective chemical properties. You would certainly not want to use a solution of methyl formate as a substitute for a solution of acetic acid (vinegar) when you make salad dressing!

    Figure A shows a structural diagram of acetic acid, C subscript 2 H subscript 4 O subscript 2. Acetic acid contains two carbon atoms connected by a single bond. The left carbon atom forms single bonds with three hydrogen atoms. The carbon on the right forms a double bond with an oxygen atom. The right carbon atom also forms a single bond to an oxygen atom which forms a single bond with a hydrogen atom. Figure B shows a structural diagram of methyl formate, C subscript 2 H subscript 4 O subscript 2. This molecule contains a carbon atom which forms single bonds with three hydrogen atoms, and a single bond with an oxygen atom. The oxygen atom forms a single bond with another carbon atom which forms a double bond with another oxygen atom and a single bond with a hydrogen atom.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Molecules of (a) acetic acid and methyl formate (b) are structural isomers; they have the same formula (C2H4O2) but different structures (and therefore different chemical properties).

    Many types of isomers exist (Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\)). Acetic acid and methyl formate are structural isomers, compounds in which the molecules differ in how the atoms are connected to each other. There are also various types of spatial isomers, in which the relative orientations of the atoms in space can be different. For example, the compound carvone (found in caraway seeds, spearmint, and mandarin orange peels) consists of two isomers that are mirror images of each other. S-(+)-carvone smells like caraway, and R-(−)-carvone smells like spearmint.

    The top left portion of this 2 row, 4 column figure shows a structural diagram of positive carvone, C subscript 10 H subscript 14 O. This molecule has a carbon atom which forms a double bond with a C H subscript 2 group and a C H subscript 3 group. The carbon atom also forms a single bond with another carbon atom which is part of a ring. This carbon atom, being part of the ring, forms single bonds with a hydrogen atom, a C H subscript 2 group, and a C H subscript 2 group. The first C H subscript two group forms a single bond with C H which forms a double bond with a carbon atom. This carbon atom forms a single bond with a C H subscript 3 group. The carbon atom forming part of the ring forms a single bond with a carbon atom which forms a double bond with an oxygen atom and a single bond with a C H subscript 2 group to complete the ring. Below the structural diagram of carvone is a photo of caraway seeds. Column 2 contains identical ball and stick representations of the structural diagram in the top left position. The top right portions of these images each contains the letter “S” and there is an arrow pointing downward from the top image to the bottom image. Columns 3 and 4 are representations of negative carvone. The top row in column three depicts a mirrored image of the ball and stick structure to its left, reflected across the y axis. There is a downward pointing arrow to the image below, which is the same structure rotated counter clockwise 180 degrees. Both images in column 3 have an “R” in the top right corner. The image in the first row of column 4 is the same as the lewis structure in the first row of column 1, reflected across the y axis. Below this negative carvone structural diagram is a photo of spearmint leaves.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Molecules of carvone are spatial isomers; they only differ in the relative orientations of the atoms in space. (credit bottom left: modification of work by “Miansari66”/Wikimedia Commons; credit bottom right: modification of work by Forest & Kim Starr)

    Summary

    A molecular formula uses chemical symbols and subscripts to indicate the exact numbers of different atoms in a molecule or compound. An empirical formula gives the simplest, whole-number ratio of atoms in a compound. A structural formula indicates the bonding arrangement of the atoms in the molecule. Ball-and-stick and space-filling models show the geometric arrangement of atoms in a molecule. Isomers are compounds with the same molecular formula but different arrangements of atoms.

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