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Spontaneous Reaction

What is Spontaneous Reaction

A spontaneous reaction is a chemical reaction that proceeds without any supply of energy. A reaction that is spontaneous will proceed without outside intervention. The Gibbs free energy of the products is lower than that of the reactants, which implies stable products. Therefore, the change in the free energy of the reaction is negative [1-8].

In chemistry and biology, a spontaneous reaction occurs naturally. It favors the formation of products under the given reaction conditions. Exergonic reactions are spontaneous.

On the contrary, a spontaneous process is one where the reaction does not occur. Examples of spontaneous process includes a ball rolling down a slide and ice melting into water.

Spontaneous Reaction

Spontaneous Reaction and Gibbs Free Energy

What Causes a Reaction to be Spontaneous

The spontaneity of a reaction occurring at constant temperature and pressure can be determined by Gibbs free energy, which is given by [2-6]


Here, ΔH is the change in enthalpy, ΔS is the change in entropy, and T is the temperature. ΔG is expressed in the unit of kJ mol-1. The sign of ΔG depends on the signs of ΔH and ΔS. A reaction is spontaneous and favorable if there is a decrease in enthalpy and increase in entropy of the system.

In general, the conditions for a spontaneous reaction to occur are as follows:

1. When ΔG is negative, the reaction is spontaneous and proceeds in the forward direction.

2. When ΔG is positive, the reaction is nonspontaneous in the forward direction but is spontaneous in the reverse direction.

3. When ΔG is zero, the reaction is in equilibrium. The concentrations of the reactants and products will remain the same.

Examples of Spontaneous Reaction

Here are some examples of reactions that occur spontaneously.

1. The combustion of a fuel like ethanol (C2H5OH) in oxygen gas (O2) in air. The products of the combustion reaction are carbon dioxide gas (CO2) and water (H2O) at temperatures above 100°C. The reaction will progress in the forward direction until the fuel runs out.

C2H5OH (l) + 3 O2 (g) → 2 CO2(g) + 3 H2O (g)

2. When a soda bottle is opened, carbonic acid present in the aerated soda decomposes to carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20).

H2CO3 (aq.) → CO2 (g) + H2O (l)

3. Wood consists of hydrocarbon (CxHy). The burning of wood in the presence of oxygen (O2) produces carbon dioxide and water.

CxHy + (x+y/4) O2 → x CO2 (g) + (y/2) H2O (l)

4. The reaction of baking soda (NaHCO3) with vinegar (CH3COOH) gives sodium acetate (CH3COONa), carbon dioxide, and water.

NaHCO3 (s) + CH3COOH (aq.) → CH3COONa (aq.) + CO2 (g) + H2O (l)

5. The rusting of iron (Fe) in the presence of oxygen, water, and sunlight gives iron (III) oxide (Fe2O3).

4 Fe (s) + 3 O2 (g) → 2 Fe2O3 (s)

Spontaneous Reaction Examples

Spontaneous and Nonspontaneous Reactions [7-8]

A nonspontaneous reaction requires energy to proceed. This type of reaction does not favor the formation of products and the Gibbs free energy is positive. However, the reaction may proceed spontaneously in a reversible direction. A nonspontaneous reaction is generally endergonic.

An example of a nonspontaneous reaction is the decomposition of water (H2O) into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) through electrolysis, which uses a battery or cell to supply energy.

2 H2O (l) → 2 H2 (g) + O2 (g)

In electrochemistry, electroplating and electrolysis are nonspontaneous redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions. On the other hand, a galvanic (voltaic) cell converts the energy released by a spontaneous chemical reaction to electrical energy.

Spontaneous vs. Nonspontaneous Reactions

The following table gives the difference between spontaneous and nonspontaneous reaction

Spontaneous ReactionNonspontaneous Reaction
DefinitionA chemical reaction that takes place without any external energyA chemical reaction that requires external energy to occur
Enthalpy and entropy changeFavors increasing entropy and decreasing enthalpyDo not favor increasing entropy and decreasing enthalpy at normal conditions
Gibbs free energyNegativePositive
ExampleCombustion of wood and fuelElectrolysis of water

How to Tell if a Reaction is Spontaneous or Nonspontaneous

The spontaneity of a reaction depends on the change in enthalpy (ΔH) and entropy (ΔS) as well as the temperature (T). The following table predicts whether a reaction will be spontaneous or not.

 ΔH < 0ΔH > 0
ΔS > 0Spontaneous at all TSpontaneous at high T
ΔS < 0Spontaneous at low TNonspontaneous at all T



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