Activation Energy and the Arrhenius Equation


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A graph is shown with the label, “Extent of reaction,” bon the x-axis and the label, “Energy,” on the y-axis. Above the x-axis, a portion of a curve is labeled “A plus B.” From the right end of this region, the concave down curve continues upward to reach a maximum near the height of the y-axis. The peak of this curve is labeled, “Transition state.” A double sided arrow extends from a dashed red horizontal line that originates at the y-axis at a common endpoint with the curve to the peak of the curve. This arrow is labeled “E subscript a.” A second horizontal red dashed line segment is drawn from the right end of the black curve left to the vertical axis at a level significantly lower than the initial “A plus B” labeled end of the curve. The end of the curve that is shared with this segment is labeled, “C plus D.” The curve, which was initially dashed, continues as a solid curve from the maximum to its endpoint at the right side of the diagram. A second double sided arrow is shown. This arrow extends between the two dashed horizontal lines and is labeled, “capital delta H.”
Figure 1. Reaction diagram for the exothermic reaction A+B⟶C+D. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Activation Energy and the Arrhenius Equation (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

The minimum energy necessary to form a product during a collision between reactants is called the activation energy (Ea). How this energy compares to the kinetic energy provided by colliding reactant molecules is a primary factor affecting the rate of a chemical reaction. If the activation energy is much larger than the average kinetic energy of the molecules, the reaction will occur slowly since only a few fast-moving molecules will have enough energy to react. If the activation energy is much smaller than the average kinetic energy of the molecules, a large fraction of molecules will be adequately energetic and the reaction will proceed rapidly.

Figure 1 shows how the energy of a chemical system changes as it undergoes a reaction converting reactants to products according to the equation

These reaction diagrams are widely used in chemical kinetics to illustrate various properties of the reaction of interest. Viewing the diagram from left to right, the system initially comprises reactants only, A + B. Reactant molecules with sufficient energy can collide to form a high-energy activated complex or transition state. The unstable transition state can then subsequently decay to yield stable products, C + D. The diagram depicts the reaction’s activation energy, Ea, as the energy difference between the reactants and the transition state. Using a specific energy, the enthalpy (see chapter on thermochemistry), the enthalpy change of the reaction, ΔH, is estimated as the energy difference between the reactants and products. In this case, the reaction is exothermic (ΔH < 0) since it yields a decrease in system enthalpy.

The Arrhenius equation relates the activation energy and the rate constant, k, for many chemical reactions:

In this equation, R is the ideal gas constant, which has a value 8.314 J/mol/K, T is temperature on the Kelvin scale, Ea is the activation energy in joules per mole, e is the constant 2.7183, and A is a constant called the frequency factor, which is related to the frequency of collisions and the orientation of the reacting molecules.

Postulates of collision theory are nicely accommodated by the Arrhenius equation. The frequency factor, A, reflects how well the reaction conditions favor properly oriented collisions between reactant molecules. An increased probability of effectively oriented collisions results in larger values for A and faster reaction rates.

The exponential term, e−Ea/RT, describes the effect of activation energy on reaction rate. According to kinetic molecular theory (see chapter on gases), the temperature of matter is a measure of the average kinetic energy of its constituent atoms or molecules. The distribution of energies among the molecules composing a sample of matter at any given temperature is described by the plot shown in Figure 2 (a). Two shaded areas under the curve represent the numbers of molecules possessing adequate energy (RT) to overcome the activation barriers (Ea). A lower activation energy results in a greater fraction of adequately energized molecules and a faster reaction.

The exponential term also describes the effect of temperature on reaction rate. A higher temperature represents a correspondingly greater fraction of molecules possessing sufficient energy (RT) to overcome the activation barrier (Ea), as shown in Figure 2 (b). This yields a greater value for the rate constant and a correspondingly faster reaction rate.

Two graphs are shown each with an x-axis label of “Kinetic energy” and a y-axis label of “Fraction of molecules.” Each contains a positively skewed curve indicated in red that begins at the origin and approaches the x-axis at the right side of the graph. In a, a small area under the far right end of the curve is shaded orange. An arrow points down from above the curve to the left end of this region where the shading begins. This arrow is labeled, “Higher activation energy, E subscript a.” In b, the same red curve appears, and a second curve is drawn in black. It is also positively skewed, but reaches a lower maximum value and takes on a broadened appearance as compared to the curve in red. In this graph, the red curve is labeled, “T subscript 1” and the black curve is labeled, “T subscript 2.” In the open space at the upper right on the graph is the label, “T subscript 1 less than T subscript 2.” As with the first graph, the region under the curves at the far right is shaded orange and a downward arrow labeled “E subscript a” points to the left end of this shaded region.
Figure 2 Molecular energy distributions showing numbers of molecules with energies exceeding (a) two different activation energies at a given temperature, and (b) a given activation energy at two different temperatures. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

A convenient approach for determining Ea for a reaction involves the measurement of k at two or more different temperatures and using an alternate version of the Arrhenius equation that takes the form of a linear equation


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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