Join Our Discord

Learn More  👇

caret down
caret up
discord-logo

Join our Discord

1,000s of Fiveable Community students are already finding study help, meeting new friends, and sharing tons of opportunities among other students around the world! Don't miss out!  🎉

group of students
group of students

🧪 ap chem

  >  

🧪 Unit 4

  •  ⏱️5 min read

4.3 Balancing Chemical Equations

Hope Arnett

hope arnett

Dalia Savy

dalia savy

(editor)

⏱️ August 6, 2020

📅

Why Do We Balance Reactions?

Just as net ionic equations provide information about interactions with ions in aqueous solutions, chemical reaction equations are a great way to visually track physical changes and chemical reactions. However, before we can examine these equations to observe these changes, we need to learn how to properly set up the equation for a chemical reaction. In other words, we need to learn how to balance equations. If an equation isn’t balanced, our answers will be incorrect. But why is it bad if it’s unbalanced, and how can we learn to balance equations easily?🤔

https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-D9gzujobiqdj.jpeg?alt=media&token=1eca2e79-159c-4376-a376-a133f93b6e57

Image Courtesy of Quizizz

The Law of Conservation of Mass states that the amount of matter stays constant in a closed system. In short, matter cannot be neither created nor destroyed in thin air.

A chemical reaction is a closed system, so the number of atoms that are produced must be equal to the number of atoms put in. The atoms can still rearrange, though. In conclusion, we need to make sure that the number of elements in the reactants is the same as those in the products, even if the products are different than what we started with. Whew🤯. That was a lot. Let’s look at an example to make sense of this.

Example #1

Here’s the equation: CO (g) + O2 (g) --> CO2 (g)

Step 1

Get a general feel of the equation, and make sure it’s not already balanced. Take a look at the products and the reactants. Note🧠 the number of similar elements are on both sides. If the number of one element is equal on both sides, it’s balanced.

In this case, there is 1 carbon molecule on both sides, so carbon is balanced. However, there are 3 oxygen molecules on the left and 2 on the right, so oxygen is not.

Step 2

Look at the elements that are only in one compound on both sides of the equation and have the same number of molecules. In this case, it’s carbon. From this, we know that both of those compounds with carbon will have to have the same coefficient. Thus, we can leave the coefficients of CO and CO2 at 1 for now.

💡Remember that we can only change the coefficients of the molecules. If we change the subscript, we would change the molecule completely (ex. 2NO2 represents two molecules of carbon dioxide, but N2O4 is dinitrogen tetroxide). Coefficients can be fractions, but only rarely.

Step 3

Find elements that are only in one compound on both sides but have different numbers of molecules on each side. Balance those elements. In our example, we don’t have any in this category (don’t worry😌, the next example will have one!).

Step 4

Look for elements that appear in multiple compounds on one side. Balance those elements. In our equation, that’s oxygen. Since there is less oxygen on the right, let’s increase the coefficient of CO2 to 2:

CO (g) + O2 (g) --> 2CO2 (g)

As stated in Step 2, since both sides have an equal number of carbon, both CO and CO2 must have the same coefficient so that carbon remains balanced. Thus, we have to increase the coefficient of CO to 2.

2CO (g) + O2 (g) --> 2CO2 (g)

Now let’s make sure it really is balanced:

Reactants

Products

Carbon: 2

Carbon: 2

Oxygen: 4

Oxygen: 4

Sweet! Both the reactants and products have the same number of each molecule. We followed the Law of Conservation of Mass!🥳

Example #2

Here’s the equation: Li (s) + N2 (g) --> Li3N (s)

Step 1

Like before, let’s make sure the equation’s not already balanced. Take a look at the products and the reactants. Note the number of similar elements are on both sides.

There is 1 lithium molecule on the left and 3 on the right. There are 2 nitrogen molecules on the left and 1 on the right. Neither lithium nor nitrogen are balanced.

Step 2

Look at the elements that are only in one compound on both sides of the equation and have the same number of molecules on both sides. Balance those elements. In our example, no such element exists🎉.

Step 3

Find elements that are only in one compound on both sides but have different numbers of molecules on each side. Balance those elements. In our example, both lithium and nitrogen fall into this category. In this situation, it’s more like guess-and-check, but we can go about it strategically.

Since there are 3 lithium molecules on the right, let’s increase the coefficient of Li to 3.

3Li (s) + N2 (g) --> Li3N (s)

Lithium is all balanced! Now, looking at nitrogen, we notice that there are 2 on the left and only 1 on the right. Let’s increase the coefficient of Li3N to 2.

3Li (s) + N2 (g) --> 2Li3N (s)

Nitrogen looks good! But wait… Lithium is no longer balanced! Fear not, we have the power to change coefficients ✊ Since there are 6 molecules of lithium on the right, let’s increase the coefficient of Li to 6.

6Li (s) + N2 (g) --> 2Li3N (s)

Step 4

Look at the elements that are in more than one compound. In this example, there is no element.

Time to double check our work.

Reactants

Products

Lithium: 6

Lithium: 6

Nitrogen: 2

Nitrogen: 2

Steps

Woohoo! We balanced another equation! It’s probably evident that the more practice you do, the better you’ll be at balancing equations. Be sure to keep the steps we used in mind:

  1. Make sure the equation isn’t already balanced

  2. Find the elements that are only in one compound on both sides and have the same number of molecules on both sides. These must have equal coefficients.

  3. Look at the elements that are only in one compound on both sides and have the same number of molecules on both sides. Balance them.

  4. Look at the elements that are in more than one compound. Balance them.

  5. Finally, double check your answer and make sure that the number of element X on the reactants side is the same on the products side.

Review Activity

Balance the following equations (include states of matter).

  1. Na3PO4 + AgNO3 --> Ag3PO4 + NaNO3

  2. A reaction between iron (III) oxide and carbon monoxide

🎥 Watch: AP Chemistry - Stoichiometry (Part 1)

🎥Watch: AP Chemistry - Stoichiometry (Part 2)

A tent in the woods with a fire

Get your ap chem survival pack!

Download our ap chem survival pack and get access to every resource you need to get a 5.

ap chem study guides

🌀  Unit 3: Intermolecular Forces and Properties

👟  Unit 5: Kinetics

🔥  Unit 6: Thermodynamics

⚖️  Unit 7: Equilibrium

  Unit 9: Applications of Thermodynamics

🤺  AP Chemistry Essentials

continue learning

Slide 1 of 11
Fiveable

Join Our Discord

discord-logo

Fiveable Community students are already meeting new friends, starting study groups, and sharing tons of opportunities for other high schoolers. Soon the Fiveable Community will be on a totally new platform where you can share, save, and organize your learning links and lead study groups among other students!🎉

*ap® and advanced placement® are registered trademarks of the college board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

© fiveable 2021 | all rights reserved.

2550 north lake drive
suite 2
milwaukee, wi 53211