Reversible reaction

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A reversible reaction is a reaction where the reactants form products, which react together to give the reactants back.[1]

A and B can react to form C and D or, in the reverse reaction, C and D can react to form A and B. This is distinct from reversible process in thermodynamics.

Weak acids and bases undertake reversible reactions. For example, carbonic acid: H2CO3 (l) + H2O(l) ⇌ HCO3 (aq) + H3O+(aq).

The concentrations of reactants and products in an equilibrium mixture are determined by the analytical concentrations of the reagents (A and B or C and D) and the equilibrium constant, K. The magnitude of the equilibrium constant depends on the Gibbs free energy change for the reaction.[2] So, when the free energy change is large (more than about 30 kJ mol−1), then the equilibrium constant is large (log K > 3) and the concentrations of the reactants at equilibrium are very small. Such a reaction is sometimes considered to be an irreversible reaction, although in reality small amounts of the reactants are still expected to be present in the reacting system. A truly irreversible chemical reaction is usually achieved when one of the products exits the reacting system, for example, as does carbon dioxide (volatile) in the reaction

Ca CO3 + 2HCl → CaCl2 + H2O + CO2


The concept of a reversible reaction was introduced by Berthollet in 1803, after he had observed the formation of sodium carbonate crystals at the edge of a salt lake[3] (one of the natron lakes in Egypt, in limestone):

2NaCl + CaCO3 → Na2CO3 + CaCl2

He recognized this as the reverse of the familiar reaction

Na2CO3 + CaCl2→ 2NaCl + CaCO3

Until then, chemical reactions were thought to always proceed in one direction. Berthollet reasoned that the excess of salt in the lake helped push the "reverse" reaction towards the formation of sodium carbonate.[4]

In 1864, Waage and Guldberg formulated their law of mass action which quantified Berthollet's observation. Between 1884 and 1888, Le Chatelier and Braun formulated Le Chatelier's principle, which extended the same idea to a more general statement on the effects of factors other than concentration on the position of the equilibrium.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What Is a Reversible Reaction? Review Your Chemistry Concepts". Education. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  2. ^ at constant pressure.
  3. ^ How did Napoleon Bonaparte help discover reversible reactions?. Chem1 General Chemistry Virtual Textbook: Chemical Equilibrium Introduction: reactions that go both ways.
  4. ^ Claude-Louis Berthollet,"Essai de statique chimique", Paris, 1803. (Google books)