Derivation of Molecular Formulas

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OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Empirical formulas are symbols representing the relative numbers of a compound’s elements. Determining the absolute numbers of atoms that compose a single molecule of a covalent compound requires knowledge of both its empirical formula and its molecular mass or molar mass. These quantities may be determined experimentally by various measurement techniques. Molecular mass, for example, is often derived from the mass spectrum of the compound. Molar mass can be measured by a number of experimental methods.

Molecular formulas are derived by comparing the compound’s molecular or molar mass to its empirical formula mass. As the name suggests, an empirical formula mass is the sum of the average atomic masses of all the atoms represented in an empirical formula. If the molecular (or molar) mass of the substance is known, it may be divided by the empirical formula mass to yield the number of empirical formula units per molecule (n):

The molecular formula is then obtained by multiplying each subscript in the empirical formula by n, as shown by the generic empirical formula AxBy:

For example, consider a covalent compound whose empirical formula is determined to be CH2O. The empirical formula mass for this compound is approximately 30 amu (the sum of 12 amu for one C atom, 2 amu for two H atoms, and 16 amu for one O atom). If the compound’s molecular mass is determined to be 180 amu, this indicates that molecules of this compound contain six times the number of atoms represented in the empirical formula:

Molecules of this compound are then represented by molecular formulas whose subscripts are six times greater than those in the empirical formula:

Note that this same approach may be used when the molar mass (g/mol) instead of the molecular mass (amu) is used. In this case, one mole of empirical formula units and molecules is considered, as opposed to single units and molecules.


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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