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Chemistry LibreTexts

3.5: Differences in Matter: Physical and Chemical Properties

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  • Skills to Develop

    To separate physical from chemical properties.

    All matter has physical and chemical properties. Physical properties are characteristics that scientists can measure without changing the composition of the sample under study, such as mass, color, and volume (the amount of space occupied by a sample). Chemical properties describe the characteristic ability of a substance to react to form new substances; they include its flammability and susceptibility to corrosion. All samples of a pure substance have the same chemical and physical properties. For example, pure copper is always a reddish-brown solid (a physical property) and always dissolves in dilute nitric acid to produce a blue solution and a brown gas (a chemical property).

    Physical Property

    physical property is a characteristic of a substance that can be observed or measured without changing the identity of the substance. Silver is a shiny metal that conducts electricity very well.It can be molded into thin sheets, a property called malleability. Salt is dull and brittle and conducts electricity when it has been dissolved into water, which it does quite easily. Physical properties of matter include color, hardness, malleability, solubility, electrical conductivity, density, melting points, and boiling points.

    For the elements, color does not vary much from one element to the next. The vast majority of elements are colorless, silver, or gray. Some elements do have distinctive colors: sulfur and chlorine are yellow, copper is (of course) copper-colored, and elemental bromine is red. However, density can be a very useful parameter for identifying an element. Of the materials that exist as solids at room temperature, iodine has a very low density compared to zinc, chromium, and tin. Gold has a very high density, as does platinum. Pure water, for example, has a density of 0.998 g/cm3 at 25°C. The average densities of some common substances are in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\). Notice that corn oil has a lower mass to volume ratio than water. This means that when added to water, corn oil will “float.”

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Densities of Common Substances
    Substance Density at 25°C (g/cm3)
    blood 1.035
    body fat 0.918
    whole milk 1.030
    corn oil 0.922
    mayonnaise 0.910
    honey 1.420
    • Hardness helps determine how an element (especially a metal) might be used. Many elements are fairly soft (silver and gold, for example) while others (such as titanium, tungsten, and chromium) are much harder. Carbon is an interesting example of hardness. In graphite, (the "lead" found in pencils) the carbon is very soft, while the carbon in a diamond is roughly seven times as hard.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Pencil (left) and Diamond ring (right). Both are a form of carbon, but exhibit very different physical properties.

    Melting and boiling points are somewhat unique identifiers, especially of compounds. In addition to giving some idea as to the identity of the compound, important information can be obtained about the purity of the material.

    Chemical Properties

    Chemical properties of matter describes its "potential" to undergo some chemical change or reaction by virtue of its composition. What elements, electrons, and bonding are present to give the potential for chemical change. It is quite difficult to define a chemical property without using the word "change". Eventually you should be able to look at the formula of a compound and state some chemical property. At this time this is very difficult to do and you are not expected to be able to do it. For example hydrogen has the potential to ignite and explode given the right conditions - this is a chemical property. Metals in general have they chemical property of reacting with an acid. Zinc reacts with hydrochloric acid to produce hydrogen gas - this is a chemical property.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Heavy rust on the links of a chain near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; it was continuously exposed to moisture and salt spray, causing surface breakdown, cracking, and flaking of the metal. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; Marlith).

    A chemical property of iron is that it is capable of combining with oxygen to form iron oxide, the chemical name of rust (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). The more general term for rusting and other similar processes is corrosion. Other terms that are commonly used in descriptions of chemical changes are burn, rot, explode, decompose, and ferment. Chemical properties are very useful in identifying substances. However, unlike physical properties, chemical properties can only be observed as the substance is in the process of being changed into a different substance.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Contrasting Physical and Chemistry Properties
    Physical Property Chemical Property
     Gallium metal melts at 30 oC  Iron metal rusts.
     Mercury is a very dense liquid. A green banana turns yellow when it ripens.
    Gold is shiny. A dry piece of paper burns.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Which of the following is a chemical property of iron?

    1. Iron corrodes in moist air
    2. Density = 7.874 g/cm3
    3. Iron is soft when pure.
    4. Iron melts at 1808 K.


     Iron corrodes in air is the only chemical  property of iron from the list.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1A}\)

    Which of the following is a physical property of matter?

    1. corrosiveness
    2. pH (acidity)
    3. density
    4. flammability

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1B}\)

    Which of the following is a chemical property?

    1. flammability
    2. melting point
    3. boiling point
    4. density


    A physical property is a characteristic of a substance that can be observed or measured without changing the identity of the substance. Physical properties include color, density, hardness, and melting and boiling points. A chemical property describes the ability of a substance to undergo a specific chemical change. To identify a chemical property, we look for a chemical change. 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.