Determination of Empirical Formulas

Related Posts

A flow chart is shown that is composed of six boxes, two of which are connected together by a right facing arrow and located above two more that are also connected by a right-facing arrow. These two rows of boxes are connected vertically by a line that leads to a right-facing arrow and the last two boxes, connected by a final right facing arrow. The first two upper boxes have the phrases, “Mass of A atoms” and “Moles of A atoms” respectively, while the arrow that connects them has the phrase, “Divide by molar mass,” written below it. The second two bottom boxes have the phrases, “Mass of X atoms” and “Moles of X atoms” respectively, while the arrow that connects them has the phrase, “Divide by molar mass” written below it. The arrow that connects the upper and lower boxes to the last two boxes has the phrase “Divide by lowest number of moles” written below it. The last two boxes have the phrases, “A to X mole ratio” and “Empirical formula” respectively, while the arrow that connects them has the phrase, “Convert ratio to lowest whole numbers” written below it.
The empirical formula of a compound can be derived from the masses of all elements in the sample. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The most common approach to determining a compound’s chemical formula is to first measure the masses of its constituent elements. However, keep in mind that chemical formulas represent the relative numbers, not masses, of atoms in the substance. Therefore, any experimentally derived data involving mass must be used to derive the corresponding numbers of atoms in the compound. This is accomplished using molar masses to convert the mass of each element to a number of moles. These molar amounts are used to compute whole-number ratios that can be used to derive the empirical formula of the substance. Consider a sample of compound determined to contain 1.71 g C and 0.287 g H. The corresponding numbers of atoms (in moles) are:

Thus, this compound may be represented by the formula C0.142H0.284. Per convention, formulas contain whole-number subscripts, which can be achieved by dividing each subscript by the smaller subscript:

The empirical formula for this compound is thus CH2. This may or not be the compound’s molecular formula as well; however, additional information is needed to make that determination.

Consider as another example a sample of compound determined to contain 5.31 g Cl and 8.40 g O. Following the same approach yields a tentative empirical formula of:

In this case, dividing by the smallest subscript still leaves us with a decimal subscript in the empirical formula. To convert this into a whole number, multiply each of the subscripts by two, retaining the same atom ratio and yielding Cl2O7 as the final empirical formula.

In summary, empirical formulas are derived from experimentally measured element masses by:

  1. Deriving the number of moles of each element from its mass.
  2. Dividing each element’s molar amount by the smallest molar amount to yield subscripts for a tentative empirical formula.
  3. Multiplying all coefficients by an integer, if necessary, to ensure that the smallest whole-number ratio of subscripts is obtained.


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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.