What is chemical free energy? How can we practically explain its existence? How can it be used to do some useful work like in an electrochemical cell?

I couldn't understand clearly about it when I referred a few books

  • $\begingroup$ What is your understanding of it thus far? Putting what you've learned into the question will help someone answering to fill in the gaps. $\endgroup$
    – jonsca
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 7:21
  • $\begingroup$ Up to my knowledge, chemical free energy can be referred to Gibbs free energy. It can be termed as the energy available to do useful work. The existence of Gibbs free energy can be known by knowing whether the process is spontaneous or not. If the process is spontaneous, we can say that, there is chemical free energy, if process is non spontaneous, we can say that, there is no free energy. In electrochemical cell, it can be used to do useful work by converting it into electrical energy. $\endgroup$
    – Sensebe
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 10:27

1 Answer 1


Chemical Free Energy or Gibbs Free Energy is best understood as potential energy for reactions.

If I have a lot of Gibbs Free Energy, then I have a lot of potential energy. Kind of like if I were on top of a hill, it's very easy for me to roll down that hill.

Often what's talked about in books is dG or the change in Gibbs Free Energy.
If we think of it is simply being on top of a hill (High Gibbs Free Energy/Potential Energy) G(initial)
going to the bottom of the hill (Low Gibbs Free Energy/Potential Energy) G(final)

Then the change in Gibbs Free Energy will be negative for something spontaneous (like the rolling down a hill example).
Change is always calculated as: change = final - initial

Gibbs Free Energy is used in the same was as potential energy. But instead of translating to kinetic energy, it translates to Enthalpy (heat) and/or Electrochemical Energy (being able to move electrons). Both Enthalpy and Electrochemical Energy can then be converted to mechanical work.

The way to think about it is not so much that you can use Gibbs Free Energy, but rather it's just the innate property of whatever situation you're working with. Molecules have a tendency to be reduced or oxidized under different conditions, the Gibbs Free Energy just tells you which way is spontaneous.

dG = dH - TdS

This gets kind of complicated, since dG is affected by many factors, but it gives you an idea, that the Change in Gibbs Free Energy can become positive or negative under different conditions.

Keep in mind that Gibbs Free Energy isn't a real thing, but rather a concept that helps explain why things happen.
Why do gases expand?
I don't know, but the universe has a tendency to do this. So we say that it is spontaneous, just like how we would say things roll down a hill because of gravity.
What's gravity?
It's our way of explaining why things roll down hills. :p

I hope that helps a little bit.


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