The Collision Theory


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A diagram is shown that illustrates two possible collisions between C O and O subscript 2. In the diagram, oxygen atoms are represented as red spheres and carbon atoms are represented as black spheres. The diagram is divided into upper and lower halves by a horizontal dashed line. At the top left, a C O molecule is shown striking an O subscript 2 molecule such that the O atom from the C O molecule is at the point of collision. Surrounding this collision are a mix of molecules of C O, and O subscript 2 of varying sizes. At the top middle region of the figure, two separated O atoms are shown as red spheres with the label, “Oxygen to oxygen,” beneath them. To the upper right, “No reaction” is written. Similarly in the lower left of the diagram, a C O molecule is shown striking an O subscript 2 molecule such that the C atom from the C O molecule is at the point of collision. Surrounding this collision are a mix of molecules of C O, and O subscript 2 of varying sizes. At the lower middle region of the figure, a black sphere and a red spheres are shown with the label, “Carbon to oxygen,” beneath them. To the lower right, “More C O subscript 2 formation” is written and three models of C O subscript 2 composed each of a single central black sphere and two red spheres in a linear arrangement are shown.
Figure 1. Illustrated are two collisions that might take place between carbon monoxide and oxygen molecules. The orientation of the colliding molecules partially determines whether a reaction between the two molecules will occur. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The Collision Theory (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

We should not be surprised that atoms, molecules, or ions must collide before they can react with each other. Atoms must be close together to form chemical bonds. This simple premise is the basis for a very powerful theory that explains many observations regarding chemical kinetics, including factors affecting reaction rates.

Collision theory is based on the following postulates:

  • The rate of a reaction is proportional to the rate of reactant collisions:
  • The reacting species must collide in an orientation that allows contact between the atoms that will become bonded together in the product.
  • The collision must occur with adequate energy to permit mutual penetration of the reacting species’ valence shells so that the electrons can rearrange and form new bonds (and new chemical species).

We can see the importance of the two physical factors noted in postulates 2 and 3, the orientation and energy of collisions, when we consider the reaction of carbon monoxide with oxygen:

Carbon monoxide is a pollutant produced by the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. To reduce this pollutant, automobiles have catalytic converters that use a catalyst to carry out this reaction. It is also a side reaction of the combustion of gunpowder that results in muzzle flash for many firearms. If carbon monoxide and oxygen are present in sufficient amounts, the reaction will occur at high temperature and pressure.

The first step in the gas-phase reaction between carbon monoxide and oxygen is a collision between the two molecules:

Although there are many different possible orientations the two molecules can have relative to each other, consider the two presented in Figure 1. In the first case, the oxygen side of the carbon monoxide molecule collides with the oxygen molecule. In the second case, the carbon side of the carbon monoxide molecule collides with the oxygen molecule. The second case is clearly more likely to result in the formation of carbon dioxide, which has a central carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms (O=C=O). This is a rather simple example of how important the orientation of the collision is in terms of creating the desired product of the reaction.

If the collision does take place with the correct orientation, there is still no guarantee that the reaction will proceed to form carbon dioxide. In addition to a proper orientation, the collision must also occur with sufficient energy to result in product formation. When reactant species collide with both proper orientation and adequate energy, they combine to form an unstable species called an activated complex or a transition state. These species are very short lived and usually undetectable by most analytical instruments. In some cases, sophisticated spectral measurements have been used to observe transition states.

Collision theory explains why most reaction rates increase as concentrations increase. With an increase in the concentration of any reacting substance, the chances for collisions between molecules are increased because there are more molecules per unit of volume. More collisions mean a faster reaction rate, assuming the energy of the collisions is adequate.


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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