What Is A Process In Which Some Substances Change Chemically Into Different Substances?

Table of Contents

Introducing Chemical Changes

A chemical change is a process in which substances are transformed into entirely new substances through chemical reactions. The starting substances (reactants) are transformed into different substances (products) by breaking existing bonds and forming new bonds.

Some examples of chemical changes include:

  • Burning of wood – The components of wood (cellulose, lignin, etc.) react with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water, and other products.
  • Rusting of iron – Iron reacts with oxygen to produce iron oxide (rust).
  • Digestion of food – Food molecules like carbohydrates, proteins and fats are broken down by enzymes and acids into simpler molecules that can be absorbed.

Chemical changes play an important role in many areas including industry, cooking, biological processes and more. They allow us to produce important compounds like medicines, fuels, polymers, etc. Chemical changes also allow living organisms to obtain energy from food through processes like cellular respiration.

Unlike physical changes which only alter a substance’s physical properties, chemical changes create entirely different substances through bonds breaking and reforming. This fundamental change at the molecular level is what distinguishes chemical changes.

Identifying Chemical Changes

There are several telltale signs that indicate a chemical change has occurred during a reaction between substances. These include:

    chemical changes involve the transformation of substances into new substances.

  • Color Change: If the color of a substance changes after a reaction, this often means a chemical change has occurred. The change in color indicates that the molecular structure has been altered to form a new substance. For example, adding bromine water to an organic compound can result in the water turning from reddish-brown to clear.
  • Gas Production: The formation of bubbles or air pockets is a sign that a gas has been produced as a product of the chemical reaction. This gas is a new chemical substance. An example is the reaction between baking soda and vinegar which produces carbon dioxide gas bubbles.
  • Precipitation: When two solutions are mixed and a solid forms, this solid is called a precipitate. Precipitate formation is indicative of a chemical change as the liquids are reacting to form a completely new insoluble substance. For example, mixing solutions of lead nitrate and potassium iodide results in the formation of a yellow lead iodide solid precipitate.
  • Energy Change: Chemical changes either absorb or release energy. If heat, light or sound is given off, it suggests bonds are breaking and reforming within the reactants, signaling a chemical reaction. Exothermic reactions like combustion that give off heat point to chemical changes. Endothermic reactions that take in heat also indicate chemical changes are occurring.

By identifying these signals like color, gas, precipitate or energy change, it’s possible to distinguish chemical changes from physical changes where the makeup of substances remains unaltered. These signs reflect the formation of new substances during a chemical reaction.

Types of Chemical Changes

There are several different types of chemical changes that commonly occur:


Combustion is a chemical change that occurs when a substance reacts quickly with oxygen to produce heat and light. Common examples are the burning of wood, natural gas, and gasoline in automobiles. In each case, the original substance reacts with oxygen gas, producing carbon dioxide, water, and energy.


Oxidation is the loss of electrons during a reaction by a substance. The substance that loses electrons is said to be oxidized. Oxidation often produces energy and new substances. For example, when iron metal reacts with oxygen gas, it loses electrons and forms iron oxide rust. The iron has been oxidized.


Decomposition is when a single complex substance breaks down into two or more simpler substances. For example, when wood decays, it decomposes into simpler organic materials and minerals. Another example is the decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen gases by electrolysis.


Synthesis is the opposite of decomposition – it’s when two or more simpler substances combine to form a more complex single substance. For example, simple hydrogen and oxygen gases can synthesize to form water. Many types of plastics and polymers are also formed through chemical synthesis.

Single & Double Displacement

Single displacement reactions involve one element replacing another element in a compound. For example, zinc metal can displace copper ions in a copper sulfate solution. Double displacement reactions involve the swapping of ions between two compounds. For example, when silver nitrate and sodium chloride solutions are mixed, silver chloride and sodium nitrate are formed through ion exchange.

Understanding Chemical Equations

A chemical equation is a shorthand description of a chemical reaction. The reactants (starting materials) are written on the left side of the equation, while the products (resulting substances) are written on the right side. An arrow points from the reactants to the products to indicate the reaction’s direction.

For example, the chemical equation for the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to form water is:

2H2 + O2 → 2H2O

This shows that two molecules of hydrogen (H2) react with one molecule of oxygen (O2) to form two molecules of water (H2O).

Chemical equations must be balanced, meaning the number of atoms of each element must be the same on both sides of the equation. This is done by adding coefficients in front of formulas. For example:

C3H8 + O2 → CO2 + H2O

Here, there are 3 carbon atoms on the left but only 1 on the right, so a coefficient of 3 is added to CO2 to balance it. The number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms is now balanced as well.

Balanced equations provide useful information about the reactants and products in a chemical reaction based on their chemical formulas. The coefficients indicate the relative number of molecules or formula units taking part.

Energy Changes in Chemical Reactions

Chemical reactions involve energy changes that can be categorized as either exothermic or endothermic. This energy change is a result of the difference between the energy required to break bonds in the reactants (the activation energy) and the energy released when new bonds form in the products.

Exothermic reactions release energy, resulting in products that have less energy than the reactants. Examples of exothermic reactions include combustion, neutralization, and oxidation reactions. The release of energy is seen in the form of light, heat, or sound.

In contrast, endothermic reactions require an input of energy to proceed, resulting in products that have more energy than the reactants. Common endothermic reactions include some polymerization, electrolysis, and dissociation reactions. The input of energy is needed to allow the chemical bonds in the reactants to break.

The activation energy is the minimum amount of energy needed for a chemical reaction to take place. Reactions with a high activation energy have a high barrier that must be overcome for the reaction to occur. The addition of a catalyst works to lower the activation energy needed and speed up the rate of a chemical reaction.

Being able to categorize reactions as exothermic or endothermic allows scientists to better understand, control, and utilize chemical changes in real-world applications.

Rates of Chemical Reactions

The rate of a chemical reaction refers to how quickly reactants are consumed and products are formed over time. The rates of chemical reactions can vary greatly. Understanding what affects reaction rates is important for controlling reactions and optimizing industrial processes.

According to collision theory, molecules must collide with each other and with sufficient energy and proper orientation for a reaction to occur. The rate of a chemical reaction depends on the frequency and energy of collisions between reacting molecules. Several factors can influence the rates of chemical reactions:

  • Concentration – Increasing the concentration or pressure of reactants increases the frequency of collisions, speeding up the reaction rate.
  • Temperature – Raising the temperature increases the energy of molecular collisions, overcoming activation energy barriers faster and speeding up reaction rates.
  • Surface area – Increasing the surface area of solid reactants exposes more molecules for collisions, increasing the reaction rate.
  • Catalysts – Catalysts provide an alternative pathway for reactions with lower activation energy, speeding up the reaction rate.

Understanding factors that influence reaction rates allows chemists to speed up or slow down reactions as needed for industrial production, laboratory synthesis, pharmaceutical development, and other applications.

Chemical Equilibrium

Chemical reactions are reversible and can reach a state of equilibrium. Equilibrium occurs when the forward and reverse reaction rates are equal, and the concentrations of reactants and products remain constant over time.

The equilibrium constant (Keq) is used to describe the position of equilibrium and is expressed in terms of the concentrations of reactants and products. For a general reaction:

aA + bB ⇌ cC + dD

The equilibrium constant is:

Keq = [C]c[D]d / [A]a[B]b

Where [ ] represents molar concentration of each substance. A large Keq value indicates the equilibrium favors the products, while a small Keq favors the reactants.

Le Chatelier’s principle states that if a change is imposed on a system at equilibrium, the position of equilibrium will shift to counteract the change. For example, increasing the concentration of a reactant will cause the equilibrium to shift towards forming more products. Changing temperature and pressure can also cause shifts in equilibrium according to Le Chatelier’s principle.

Acids, Bases and pH

Acids and bases are important concepts in chemistry. An acid is a substance that can donate a hydrogen ion (H+) in solution. A base is a substance that can accept H+ in solution. The relative strength of acids and bases depends on the degree to which they ionize and release H+ in solution.

The pH scale measures how acidic or basic a solution is. It ranges from 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic, 7 being neutral, and 14 being the most basic or alkaline. pH is calculated as the negative logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration. Strong acids like hydrochloric acid have very low pH values like 1 or 2. Weak acids like acetic acid have higher pH values around 3-5. Strong bases like sodium hydroxide have high pH values like 13-14, while weak bases have pH values around 9-11.

When an acid and a base react, the H+ from the acid reacts with the OH- hydroxide ions from the base to form water. This type of reaction is called neutralization because the reactants are neutralized to form a neutral, salt solution. Acids and bases have many applications in industry, agriculture, food science, and daily life.

Understanding the properties of acids and bases, the pH scale, and how they react is foundational knowledge in chemistry. Knowing the pH and acid/base properties of a substance is critical for many chemical processes and applications.

Real-World Examples

Chemical changes are happening all around us, often without us even realizing it. Here are some examples of chemical changes in everyday life:

Cooking and Baking

Cooking and baking rely on many chemical changes to create delicious foods. When heat is applied, molecules in foods break down or combine to create new flavors and textures. For example, carbohydrates in bread dough undergo a chemical change called the Maillard reaction, which causes the bread to brown as it bakes. Proteins denature and coagulate, while starches gelatinize. Enzymatic browning causes fruits like apples and avocados to change color when cut and exposed to air.

Industrial Processes

Important industrial processes involve chemical changes. The Haber process combines nitrogen and hydrogen to produce ammonia, which is a key ingredient in fertilizer production. The Contact process uses sulfur dioxide, oxygen, and catalysts to generate sulfuric acid. Hydrogen fuel can be produced through steam reforming of natural gas. Plastics and polymers are created by combining smaller molecules into long chains through polymerization reactions.

Everyday Life

We witness chemical changes daily in our homes and environment. Rust forms when iron reacts with oxygen. Milk curdles and turns into cheese or yogurt through fermentation. A photographic film undergoes a chemical change when exposed to light. Fireworks, gunpowder, and explosives rely on chemical reactions to produce the energy and gases that propel them. Even our bodies constantly undergo chemical changes through digestion and metabolism to provide us with energy.

Importance of Chemical Changes

Chemical changes are essential to life as we know it and modern civilization. Here are some of the key ways chemical changes impact our lives:

Essential for Life: Many chemical changes that occur in nature make life possible. Photosynthesis in plants is a chemical change that converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen using sunlight. Cellular respiration also relies on chemical changes to convert nutrients into energy that living things need to survive. Chemical changes allow our bodies to metabolize food, grow and repair tissue.

Advances in Technology: The production of metals, alloys, ceramics, polymers and other key materials relies on chemical changes. Chemical processes are used to develop new chemical products and synthesize medicines. The electronics, energy and transportation industries depend on chemical changes to create the materials they need.

Medical Applications: Chemical changes are harnessed in many life-saving medical technologies and treatments. Chemical disinfectants and antiseptics help prevent infection. Anesthetics, analgesics and pharmaceutical drugs utilize chemical changes to achieve their effects in the body. Diagnostics like MRIs also rely on chemical changes.

Ecology: The global cycles of elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen occur through chemical changes. The atmosphere, oceans, rocks and soil all experience chemical transformations driven by living things and geochemical processes that shape the earth’s ecosystems.

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