We were taught that there are primarily four kind of reactions, synthesis, combustion, single displacement, and double displacement. When the reactants are given to you, the reaction can be predicted.

For example:

If the reactants are AB + CD, it will be a double displacement (two pairs of compounds)

If the reactants are AB + C, it will be a single displacement (one pair and one compound/element)

If the reactants are A + B, it will be synthesis.

Why do the "format" of the reactants determine the type of reaction? Why can't, for example, AB + CD synthesize to create ABCD? Or AB + C synthesize to create ABC? Why is it assumed that if the reactants are in a specific "format" a specific reaction will occur?


1 Answer 1


If the reactants are AB + CD, it will be a double displacement (2 pairs of compounds)

An example of this might be two salts that dissociate into their respective ions in a solvent, and then the cation and anions that were not previously paired find their way to each other, if they form a salt that is not easily dissociated in this solvent, we have a new ionic compound (salt) which precipitates out as a visible solid in the mixture container. This might not always be the case, when we write net ionic equations we leave out anything that was not involved in creating the precipitate.

If we have the net ionic equation: $\ce{A^{+}_{(aq)} + B^{-}_{(aq)} -> AB_{(s)}}$ occurring when the solutions mix, then $\ce{AB}_{(s)}$ is said to be the precipitate. Notice that we leave out the other ions C and D because they were observers in the chemical equation, perhaps their attraction to each other is not strong enough to overcome the solvent. We should not always be able to tell whether this will happen or not unless we refer to experiments in which this substance had been seen to precipitate out before, perhaps even measuring its solubility in some experiments, the extent to which it will dissociate can also be calculated from experimentation.

Why can't, for example, AB + CD synthesize to create ABCD?

If you are trying to determine if a covalent bond is compatible, one method is to use the octet rule and see what combinations might occur. For example, you have reactants of silicon and fluorine. What will form? Looking at the periodic table to see the electrons they contribute, draw a lewis structure for fluorine and silicon. Silicon contributes 4 electrons, and 4 fluorine atoms contribute the rest to give all elements full octets. Silicon tetrafluoride seems to be the most stable using this model. This is one method, but often times reactions occur the opposite way too. However, perhaps for some reason it is more likely for the reactants to be present in a given reaction, even after it seems to have stopped on a macroscopic scale (even thought it really has not stopped activity), we need to come up with more things to explain why this behaviour might happen. So as scientists, we devise new models.

This is a less than obvious and bigger topic than you might realise. A general chemistry textbook might have a chapter called chemical kinetics or reaction mechanisms which describe this ten times better than I can. Some things that will help you in understanding some models of reactions and their mechanisms are things like rate laws and how to determine rate constants in the laboratory, or how to determine the activation energy proposed by Svante Arrhenius in 1880's which basically means that two chemicals need to have at least a certain amount of energy (the activation energy) to overcome their repulsive behaviors and other limiting factors (the energy required to actually break apart a molecule's covalent bonds). For a collision of two particles to produce a different particle, there are other things that determine if a new molecule is formed from a collision of two molecules. First, like I said they must overcome repulsions with kinetic energy but they often need to be aligned spatially for a certain molecule to form in some proposed mechanisms. A mechanism is a proposition that an in-between step occurs in the reaction, but it is very unlikely that two hydrogen molecules will smash into a carbon dioxide molecule and create methane and oxygen. We must propose intermediate steps to make it sound more probable. although this would represent the reverse reaction of combusting methane, and will likely never occur because the potential energy of the system would increase, and we know how much the universe hates that kind of behaviour, if not then read on.

Some concepts that will also help you understand "why reactions happen" are some laws like the 2nd law of thermodynamics which states that the entropy of the universe is always increasing. This explains why a reaction in which a reaction of type that you describe $\ce{ABC + D -> ABCD}$ is actually quite possible. The problem is that the reverse reaction also takes place with a higher probability, these molecules might actually break apart more than they combine. This two-way speciality is why this reaction will likely be written as such: $\ce{ABC + D <=> ABCD}$ indicating that it does possibly happen, but can go both ways, and most often goes backwards. The reason for this is that there is more entropy (aka: disorder) when there are more moles of molecules present. In your examples the reactions are unlikely because the reactants ($\ce{ABC}$ and $\ce{D}$) are twice the number of moles than the products ($\ce{ABCD}$). This is a limiting factor for the reaction to commonly take place. It is useful to note that this reaction might occur once in awhile, but it is more often that molecules fluttering about will break apart than create larger and more complex molecules. Indeed, it is more likely that this reaction will be reversed and proposed as a mechanism of a larger process, if at all, where D breaks off and combines with something else, lets say E and ABC still remains along with a very unbreakable compound called ED which has a triple bond that will likely not be broken at the given temperature.

Lets talk more about entropy: You have a snowball you just rolled up in your hand (it is composed of many flakes of ice). Think of each ice particle that makes up the snowball as an atom in a larger molecule (the snowball). Chances are when this snowball starts moving (like molecules tend to do) it will run into something, and when that happens it will become many different smaller flakes and chunks (atoms and smaller molecules). This is because the universe prefers disorder and chaos. If you threw your clothes freshly out of the dryer into your closet, will they miraculously fold themselves neatley and in order? No, because that would make them more orderly and less chaotic, instead they will flail about in the air and land in a disorganized manner, this then makes sense by the phenomenon of the second law of thermodynamics.

Look back on your equations now, why can't $\ce{AB + CD -> ABCD }$ occur? Hopefully this is more obvious to you now. There is more disorder in the reactants than the products. This reaction might still occur, but normally balanced chemical equations represent the net affect that tends to occur. Perhaps occasionally someone will win at the game BINGO, but that does not necessarily mean that the same person will keep on winning at BINGO, more likely it will be someone else in the room, and then someone else, etc. With that BINGO analogy, the person who won at bingo played again, and lost. The same way ABCD might have been created, but then almost immediately was destroyed again.

Chemical engineers might desire to create your molecule $\ce{ABCD}$ and to do this what they might do is add a large amount of $\ce{AB}$ molecules into the reaction chamber. Due to the overwhelming number of these molecules, the reaction is more likely to take place. Not everything in the container will eventually be $\ce{ABCD}$ molecules, but there will be more of them that there was before. These kinds of reactions are actually called equilibriums meaning that the reaction can occur both ways. We write the equilibrium reaction as $\ce{AB + CD <=> ABCD}$ to explicitly show this. The quotient of reactants to products will not be 1:1. Sometimes the rate constant is very large for a reaction implying that it will go to completion, in which case we simply write the reaction in a single direction as you often see with chemical equations.

That is far as I am willing to explain because I am merely repeating snippets of what any chemistry book will explain in a chapter on chemical kinetics, hopefully my repetitive explanation will help you get a better idea of what is actually going on here, but there is still a lot more that you could learn or I will bother to explain.

Food for thought: In the equilibrium reaction $\ce{AB + CD <=> ABCD}$, A chemical engineer decreases the pressure of the reaction chamber, will the reaction shift more in favor of the reactants or the products? These are some questions that chemistry books will ask you after chemical kinetics are discussed. But I do not expect you to be able to answer it yet.


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