Chem 260, which is one the department's required introductory core courses for the chemistry major and the biochemistry major, provides an introduction to physical chemistry and to analytical chemistry. As its name implies, this course considers three important topics that are central to our understanding of reactivity in chemical and biochemical systems: thermodynamics, equilibria, and kinetics.
Thermodynamics is the study of the energy in chemical and biochemical reactions. We know from experience that many reactions are not reversible; for example, in a gas furnace the combustion of methane, CH4, in the presence of oxygen, O2, produces carbon dioxide, CO2, water, H2O, and heat:
CH4 + 2O2 \(\rightarrow\) CO2 + 2H2O + heat
The reverse reaction, however, does not occur; that is, the carbon dioxide we exhale does not react with the moisture in air to produce methane and oxygen. Of particular interest is our ability to predict whether a chemical reaction can occur under a given set of conditions. Note that saying a reaction can occur is not the same as saying that it will occur.
Once it begins a chemical reaction continues until there is no further change in the concentrations of reactants and products, a condition that is a state of equilibrium. Of particular interest is our ability to predict the composition of a system when it reaches equilibrium and our ability to predict how a system at equilibrium might respond to a change in conditions.
Although thermodynamics allows us to predict that a reaction should occur and to predict its final composition at equilibrium, it cannot predict how long it will take to reach equilibrium. For example, thermodynamics tells us that a mixture of methane and oxygen will react to make carbon dioxide and water; a mixture of the two gases, however, is relatively stable unless we first add energy, perhaps in the form of a spark. The study of kinetics helps us understand the factors that influence how quickly a reaction occurs; it also allows us to consider how a chemical reaction might proceed at a microscopic level.
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