Free Energy, Stability, and Equilibrium


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The relationship of free energy to stability, work capacity, and spontaneous change. Unstable systems (top) are rich in free energy, G. They have a tendency to change spontaneously to a more stable state (bottom), and it is possible to harness this “downhill” change to perform work.
Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 148). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Free Energy, Stability, and Equilibrium (Campbell Biology)

When a process occurs spontaneously in a system, we can be sure that ∆G is negative. Another way to think of ∆G is to realize that it represents the difference between the free energy of the final state and the free energy of the initial state:

∆G = G(final state) – G(initial state)

Thus, ∆G can be negative only when the process involves a loss of free energy during the change from initial state to final state. Because it has less free energy, the system in its final state is less likely to change and is therefore more stable than it was previously.

We can think of free energy as a measure of a system’s instability—its tendency to change to a more stable state. Unstable systems (higher G) tend to change in such a way that they become more stable (lower G). For example, a diver on top of a platform is less stable (more likely to fall) than when floating in the water; a drop of concentrated dye is less stable (more likely to disperse) than when the dye is spread randomly through the liquid; and a glucose molecule is less stable (more likely to break down) than the simpler molecules into which it can be split. Unless something prevents it, each of these systems will move toward greater stability: The diver falls, the solution becomes uniformly colored, and the glucose molecule is broken down into smaller molecules.

Another term that describes a state of maximum stability is equilibrium. There is an important relationship between free energy and equilibrium, including chemical equilibrium. Most chemical reactions are reversible and proceed to a point at which the forward and backward reactions occur at the same rate. The reaction is then said to be at chemical equilibrium, and there is no further net change in the relative concentration of products and reactants.

As a reaction proceeds toward equilibrium, the free energy of the mixture of reactants and products decreases. Free energy increases when a reaction is somehow pushed away from equilibrium, perhaps by removing some of the products (and thus changing their concentration relative to that of the reactants). For a system at equilibrium, G is at its lowest possible value in that system. We can think of the equilibrium state as a free-energy valley. Any change from the equilibrium position will have a positive ∆G and will not be spontaneous. For this reason, systems never spontaneously move away from equilibrium. Because a system at equilibrium cannot spontaneously change, it can do no work. A process is spontaneous and can perform work only when it is moving toward equilibrium.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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