Free Energy

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OpenStax Biology 2e

Chemical reactions release energy when energy-storing bonds break, an important next question is how do we quantify and express the chemical reactions with the associated energy? How can we compare the energy that releases from one reaction to that of another reaction? We use a measurement of free energy to quantitate these energy transfers. Scientists call this free energy Gibbs free energy (abbreviated with the letter G) after Josiah Willard Gibbs, the scientist who developed the measurement. Recall that according to the second law of thermodynamics, all energy transfers involve losing some energy in an unusable form such as heat, resulting in entropy. Gibbs free energy specifically refers to the energy that takes place with a chemical reaction that is available after we account for entropy. In other words, Gibbs free energy is usable energy, or energy that is available to do work.

– What is a scalar quantity used to represent the thermodynamic state of a system?

Every chemical reaction involves a change in free energy, called delta G (∆G). We can calculate the change in free energy for any system that undergoes such a change, such as a chemical reaction. To calculate ∆G, subtract the amount of energy lost to entropy (denoted as ∆S) from the system’s total energy change. Scientists call this total energy change in the system enthalpy and we denote it as ∆H. The formula for calculating ∆G is as follows, where the symbol T refers to absolute temperature in Kelvin (degrees Celsius + 273):

We express a chemical reaction’s standard free energy change as an amount of energy per mole of the reaction product (either in kilojoules or kilocalories, kJ/mol or kcal/mol; 1 kJ = 0.239 kcal) under standard pH, temperature, and pressure conditions. We generally calculate standard pH, temperature, and pressure conditions at pH 7.0 in biological systems, 25 degrees Celsius, and 100 kilopascals (1 atm pressure), respectively. Note that cellular conditions vary considerably from these standard conditions, and so standard calculated ∆G values for biological reactions will be different inside the cell.

– What is a process whose direction can be returned to its original position by inducing infinitesimal changes to some property of the system via its surroundings?

The reaction when diamond turns to graphite has a negative change in Gibbs free energy and is therefore thermodynamically favorable at 25 °C and 1 atm. However, even though favorable, it is so slow that it is not observed. Whether a reaction is thermodynamically favorable does not determine its rate.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

Sears, F.W. and Salinger, G.L. (1986), Thermodynamics, Kinetic Theory, and Statistical Thermodynamics, 3rd edition (Addison-Wesley.)