The Classification of Matter: Mixtures and Pure Compounds

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This figure shows a series of three photos labeled a, b, and c. Photo a shows the bottom of a test tube that is filled with an orange-red substance. A slight amount of a silver substance is also visible. Photo b shows the substance in the test tube being heated over a flame. Photo c shows a test tube that is not longer being heated. The orange-red substance is almost completely gone, and small, silver droplets of a substance are left.
(a) The compound mercury(II) oxide, (b) when heated, (c) decomposes into silvery droplets of liquid mercury and invisible oxygen gas. (credit: modification of work by Paul Flowers)

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Matter can be classified into several categories. Two broad categories are mixtures and pure substances. A pure substance has a constant composition. All specimens of a pure substance have exactly the same makeup and properties. Any sample of sucrose (table sugar) consists of 42.1% carbon, 6.5% hydrogen, and 51.4% oxygen by mass. Any sample of sucrose also has the same physical properties, such as melting point, color, and sweetness, regardless of the source from which it is isolated.

Pure substances may be divided into two classes: elements and compounds. Pure substances that cannot be broken down into simpler substances by chemical changes are called elements. Iron, silver, gold, aluminum, sulfur, oxygen, and copper are familiar examples of the more than 100 known elements, of which about 90 occur naturally on the earth, and two dozen or so have been created in laboratories.

Pure substances that can be broken down by chemical changes are called compounds. This breakdown may produce either elements or other compounds, or both. Mercury(II) oxide, an orange, crystalline solid, can be broken down by heat into the elements mercury and oxygen. When heated in the absence of air, the compound sucrose is broken down into the element carbon and the compound water. (The initial stage of this process, when the sugar is turning brown, is known as caramelization—this is what imparts the characteristic sweet and nutty flavor to caramel apples, caramelized onions, and caramel). Silver(I) chloride is a white solid that can be broken down into its elements, silver and chlorine, by absorption of light. This property is the basis for the use of this compound in photographic films and photochromic eyeglasses (those with lenses that darken when exposed to light).

The properties of combined elements are different from those in the free, or uncombined, state. For example, white crystalline sugar (sucrose) is a compound resulting from the chemical combination of the element carbon, which is a black solid in one of its uncombined forms, and the two elements hydrogen and oxygen, which are colorless gases when uncombined. Free sodium, an element that is a soft, shiny, metallic solid, and free chlorine, an element that is a yellow-green gas, combine to form sodium chloride (table salt), a compound that is a white, crystalline solid.

A mixture is composed of two or more types of matter that can be present in varying amounts and can be separated by physical changes, such as evaporation (you will learn more about this later). A mixture with a composition that varies from point to point is called a heterogeneous mixture. Italian dressing is an example of a heterogeneous mixture. Its composition can vary because it may be prepared from varying amounts of oil, vinegar, and herbs. It is not the same from point to point throughout the mixture—one drop may be mostly vinegar, whereas a different drop may be mostly oil or herbs because the oil and vinegar separate and the herbs settle. Other examples of heterogeneous mixtures are chocolate chip cookies (we can see the separate bits of chocolate, nuts, and cookie dough) and granite (we can see the quartz, mica, feldspar, and more).

A homogeneous mixture, also called a solution, exhibits a uniform composition and appears visually the same throughout. An example of a solution is a sports drink, consisting of water, sugar, coloring, flavoring, and electrolytes mixed together uniformly. Each drop of a sports drink tastes the same because each drop contains the same amounts of water, sugar, and other components. Note that the composition of a sports drink can vary—it could be made with somewhat more or less sugar, flavoring, or other components, and still be a sports drink. Other examples of homogeneous mixtures include air, maple syrup, gasoline, and a solution of salt in water.

Diagram A shows a glass containing a red liquid with a layer of yellow oil floating on the surface of the red liquid. A zoom in box is magnifying a portion of the red liquid that contains some of the yellow oil. The zoomed in image shows that oil is forming round droplets within the red liquid. Diagram B shows a photo of Gatorade G 2. A zoom in box is magnifying a portion of the Gatorade, which is uniformly red.
 (a) Oil and vinegar salad dressing is a heterogeneous mixture because its composition is not uniform throughout. (b) A commercial sports drink is a homogeneous mixture because its composition is uniform throughout. (credit a “left”: modification of work by John Mayer; credit a “right”: modification of work by Umberto Salvagnin; credit b “left: modification of work by Jeff Bedford)

Although there are just over 100 elements, tens of millions of chemical compounds result from different combinations of these elements. Each compound has a specific composition and possesses definite chemical and physical properties that distinguish it from all other compounds. And, of course, there are innumerable ways to combine elements and compounds to form different mixtures.

This flow chart begins with matter at the top and the question: does the matter have constant properties and composition? If no, then it is a mixture. This leads to the next question: is it uniform throughout? If no, it is heterogeneous. If yes, it is homogenous. If the matter does have constant properties and composition, it is a pure substance. This leads to the next question: can it be simplified chemically? If no, it is an element. If yes, then it is a compound.
Depending on its properties, a given substance can be classified as a homogeneous mixture, a heterogeneous mixture, a compound, or an element. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Eleven elements make up about 99% of the earth’s crust and atmosphere. Oxygen constitutes nearly one-half and silicon about one-quarter of the total quantity of these elements. A majority of elements on earth are found in chemical combinations with other elements; about one-quarter of the elements are also found in the free state.

Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e


Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:



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