Reaction Mechanism


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OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Chemical reactions very often occur in a step-wise fashion, involving two or more distinct reactions taking place in sequence. A balanced equation indicates what is reacting and what is produced, but it reveals no details about how the reaction actually takes place. The reaction mechanism or provides details regarding the precise, step-by-step process by which a reaction occurs.

The decomposition of ozone, for example, appears to follow a mechanism with two steps:

Each of the steps in a reaction mechanism is an . These elementary reactions occur precisely as represented in the step equations, and they must sum to yield the balanced chemical equation representing the overall reaction:

Notice that the oxygen atom produced in the first step of this mechanism is consumed in the second step and therefore does not appear as a product in the overall reaction. Species that are produced in one step and consumed in a subsequent step are called .

While the overall reaction equation for the decomposition of ozone indicates that two molecules of ozone react to give three molecules of oxygen, the mechanism of the reaction does not involve the direct collision and reaction of two ozone molecules. Instead, one O3 decomposes to yield O2 and an oxygen atom, and a second O3 molecule subsequently reacts with the oxygen atom to yield two additional O2 molecules.

Unlike balanced equations representing an overall reaction, the equations for elementary reactions are explicit representations of the chemical change taking place. The reactant(s) in an elementary reaction’s equation undergo only the bond-breaking and/or making events depicted to yield the product(s). For this reason, the rate law for an elementary reaction may be derived directly from the balanced chemical equation describing the reaction. This is not the case for typical chemical reactions, for which rate laws may be reliably determined only via .