Equilibrium Constants

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Four graphs are shown and labeled, “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d.” All four graphs have a vertical dotted line running through the middle labeled, “Equilibrium is reached.” The y-axis on graph a is labeled, “Concentration,” and the x-axis is labeled, “Time.” Three curves are plotted on graph a. The first is labeled, “[ S O subscript 2 ];” this line starts high on the y-axis, ends midway down the y-axis, has a steep initial slope and a more gradual slope as it approaches the far right on the x-axis. The second curve on this graph is labeled, “[ O subscript 2 ];” this line mimics the first except that it starts and ends about fifty percent lower on the y-axis. The third curve is the inverse of the first in shape and is labeled, “[ S O subscript 3 ].” The y-axis on graph b is labeled, “Concentration,” and the x-axis is labeled, “Time.” Three curves are plotted on graph b. The first is labeled, “[ S O subscript 2 ];” this line starts low on the y-axis, ends midway up the y-axis, has a steep initial slope and a more gradual slope as it approaches the far right on the x-axis. The second curve on this graph is labeled, “[ O subscript 2 ];” this line mimics the first except that it ends about fifty percent lower on the y-axis. The third curve is the inverse of the first in shape and is labeled, “[ S O subscript 3 ].” The y-axis on graph c is labeled, “Reaction Quotient,” and the x-axis is labeled, “Time.” A single curve is plotted on graph c. This curve begins at the bottom of the y-axis and rises steeply up near the top of the y-axis, then levels off into a horizontal line. The top point of this line is labeled, “k.” The y-axis on graph d is labeled, “Reaction Quotient,” and the x-axis is labeled, “Time.” A single curve is plotted on graph d. This curve begins near the edge of the top of the y-axis and falls steeply toward the x-axis, then levels off into a horizontal line. The bottom point of this line is labeled, “k.”
Figure 1. Changes in concentrations and Qc for a chemical equilibrium achieved beginning with (a) a mixture of reactants only and (b) products only. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Equilibrium Constants (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

The status of a reversible reaction is conveniently assessed by evaluating its reaction quotient (Q). For a reversible reaction described by

the reaction quotient is derived directly from the stoichiometry of the balanced equation as

where the subscript c denotes the use of molar concentrations in the expression. If the reactants and products are gaseous, a reaction quotient may be similarly derived using partial pressures:

Note that the reaction quotient equations above are a simplification of more rigorous expressions that use relative values for concentrations and pressures rather than absolute values. These relative concentration and pressure values are dimensionless (they have no units); consequently, so are the reaction quotients.

The numerical value of Q varies as a reaction proceeds towards equilibrium; therefore, it can serve as a useful indicator of the reaction’s status. To illustrate this point, consider the oxidation of sulfur dioxide:

Two different experimental scenarios are depicted in Figure 1, one in which this reaction is initiated with a mixture of reactants only, SO2 and O2, and another that begins with only product, SO3. For the reaction that begins with a mixture of reactants only, Q is initially equal to zero:

As the reaction proceeds toward equilibrium in the forward direction, reactant concentrations decrease (as does the denominator of Qc), product concentration increases (as does the numerator of Qc), and the reaction quotient consequently increases. When equilibrium is achieved, the concentrations of reactants and product remain constant, as does the value of Qc.

If the reaction begins with only product present, the value of Qc is initially undefined (immeasurably large, or infinite):

In this case, the reaction proceeds toward equilibrium in the reverse direction. The product concentration and the numerator of Qc decrease with time, the reactant concentrations and the denominator of Qc increase, and the reaction quotient consequently decreases until it becomes constant at equilibrium.

The constant value of Q exhibited by a system at equilibrium is called the equilibrium constant, K:

Comparison of the data plots in Figure 1 shows that both experimental scenarios resulted in the same value for the equilibrium constant. This is a general observation for all equilibrium systems, known as the law of mass action: At a given temperature, the reaction quotient for a system at equilibrium is constant.

By its definition, the magnitude of an equilibrium constant explicitly reflects the composition of a reaction mixture at equilibrium, and it may be interpreted with regard to the extent of the forward reaction. A reaction exhibiting a large K will reach equilibrium when most of the reactant has been converted to product, whereas a small K indicates the reaction achieves equilibrium after very little reactant has been converted. It’s important to keep in mind that the magnitude of K does not indicate how rapidly or slowly equilibrium will be reached. Some equilibria are established so quickly as to be nearly instantaneous, and others so slowly that no perceptible change is observed over the course of days, years, or longer.

The equilibrium constant for a reaction can be used to predict the behavior of mixtures containing its reactants and/or products. As demonstrated by the sulfur dioxide oxidation process described above, a chemical reaction will proceed in whatever direction is necessary to achieve equilibrium. Comparing Q to K for an equilibrium system of interest allows prediction of what reaction (forward or reverse), if any, will occur.

To further illustrate this important point, consider the reversible reaction shown below:

The bar charts in Figure 2 represent changes in reactant and product concentrations for three different reaction mixtures. The reaction quotients for mixtures 1 and 3 are initially lesser than the reaction’s equilibrium constant, so each of these mixtures will experience a net forward reaction to achieve equilibrium. The reaction quotient for mixture 2 is initially greater than the equilibrium constant, so this mixture will proceed in the reverse direction until equilibrium is established.

Two sets of bar graphs are shown. The left is labeled, “Before reaction,” and the right is labeled, “At equilibrium.” Both graphs have y-axes labeled, “Concentration ( M ),” and three bars on the x-axes labeled, “Mixture 1,” “Mixture 2,” and “Mixture 3.” The y-axis has a scale beginning at 0.00 and ending at 0.10, with measurement increments of 0.02. The bars on the graphs are color coded and a key is provided with a legend. Red is labeled, “C O;” blue is labeled, “H subscript 2 O;” green is labeled, “C O subscript 2,” and yellow is labeled, “H subscript 2.” The graph on the left shows the red bar for mixture one just above 0.02, labeled “0.0243,” and the blue bar near 0.05, labeled “0.0243.” For mixture two, the green bar is near 0.05, labeled “0.0468,” and the yellow bar is near 0.09, labeled “0.0468.” For mixture 3, the red bar is near 0.01, labeled “0.0330,” the blue bar is slightly above that, labeled “0.190,” with green and yellow topping it off at 0.02. Green is labeled “0.00175” and yellow is labeled “0.00160.” On the right graph, the bar for mixture one shows the red bar slightly above 0.01, labeled “0.0135,” the blue bar stacked on it rising slightly above 0.02, labeled “0.0135,” the green rising near 0.04, labeled “0.0108,” and the yellow bar reaching near 0.05, labeled “0.0108.” A label above this bar reads, “Q equals 0.640.” The bar for mixture two shows the red bar slightly above 0.02, labeled “0.0260,” the blue bar stacked on it rising near 0.05, labeled “0.0260,” the green rising near 0.07, labeled “0.0208,” and the yellow bar reaching near 0.10, labeled “0.0208.” A label above this bar reads “Q equals 0.640.” The bar for mixture three shows the red bar near 0.01, labeled “0.0231,” the blue bar stacked on it rising slightly above 0.01, labeled “0.00909,” the green rising near 0.02, labeled “0.0115,” and the yellow bar reaching 0.02, labeled “0.0117.” A label above this bar reads “Q equals 0.640”.

Figure 2. Compositions of three mixtures before (Qc ≠ Kc) and after (Qc = Kc) equilibrium is established for the reaction CO(g) + H2O(g)⇌CO2(g)+H2(g). Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Source:

Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/books/chemistry-2e

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