Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules: The Building Blocks

Chemical Reactions and Molecules

All elements are most stable when their outermost shell is filled with electrons according to the octet rule. This is because it is energetically favorable for atoms to be in that configuration and it makes them stable. However, since not all elements have enough electrons to fill their outermost shells, atoms form chemical bonds with other atoms thereby obtaining the electrons they need to attain a stable electron configuration. When two or more atoms chemically bond with each other, the resultant chemical structure is a molecule. The familiar water molecule, H2O, consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. These bond together to form water, as Figure illustrates. Atoms can form molecules by donating, accepting, or sharing electrons to fill their outer shells.

In the first image, an oxygen atom is shown with six valence electrons. Four of these valence electrons form pairs at the top and right sides of the valence shell. The other two electrons are alone on the bottom and left sides. A hydrogen atom sits next to each the lone electron of the oxygen. Each hydrogen has only one valence electron. An arrow indicates that a reaction takes place. After the reaction, in the second image, each unpaired electron in the oxygen joins an electron from one of the hydrogen atoms so that the valence rings are now connected together. The bond that forms between oxygen and hydrogen can also be represented by a dash.
Two or more atoms may bond with each other to form a molecule. When two hydrogens and an oxygen share electrons via covalent bonds it forms a water molecule.

Chemical reactions occur when two or more atoms bond together to form molecules or when bonded atoms break apart. Scientists call the substances used in the beginning of a chemical reaction reactants (usually on the left side of a chemical equation), and we call the substances at the end of the reaction products (usually on the right side of a chemical equation). We typically draw an arrow between the reactants and products to indicate the chemical reaction's direction. This direction is not always a “one-way street.” To create the water molecule above, the chemical equation would be:

2H + O   H 2 O

An example of a simple chemical reaction is breaking down hydrogen peroxide molecules, each of which consists of two hydrogen atoms bonded to two oxygen atoms (H2O2). The reactant hydrogen peroxide breaks down into water, containing one oxygen atom bound to two hydrogen atoms (H2O), and oxygen, which consists of two bonded oxygen atoms (O2). In the equation below, the reaction includes two hydrogen peroxide molecules and two water molecules. This is an example of a balanced chemical equation, wherein each element's number of atoms is the same on each side of the equation. According to the law of conservation of matter, the number of atoms before and after a chemical reaction should be equal, such that no atoms are, under normal circumstances, created or destroyed.

2H 2 O 2  (hydrogen peroxide)   2H 2 O (water) + O 2  (oxygen)

Even though all of the reactants and products of this reaction are molecules (each atom remains bonded to at least one other atom), in this reaction only hydrogen peroxide and water are representatives of compounds: they contain atoms of more than one type of element. Molecular oxygen, alternatively, as Figure shows, consists of two doubly bonded oxygen atoms and is not classified as a compound but as a hononuclear molecule.

Two oxygen atoms are shown side-by-side. Each has six valence electrons, two that are paired and two that are unpaired. An arrow indicates that a reaction takes place. After the reaction, the four unpaired electrons join to form a double bond. This double bond can also be depicted by an equal sign between two Os.
A double bond joins the oxygen atoms in an O2 molecule.

Some chemical reactions, such as the one above, can proceed in one direction until they expend all the reactants. The equations that describe these reactions contain a unidirectional arrow and are irreversible. Reversible reactions are those that can go in either direction. In reversible reactions, reactants turn into products, but when the product's concentration goes beyond a certain threshold (characteristic of the particular reaction), some of these products convert back into reactants. At this point, product and reactant designations reverse. This back and forth continues until a certain relative balance between reactants and products occurs—a state called equilibrium. A chemical equation with a double headed arrow pointing towards both the reactants and products often denote these reversible reaction situations.

For example, in human blood, excess hydrogen ions (H+) bind to bicarbonate ions (HCO3-) forming an equilibrium state with carbonic acid (H2CO3). If we added carbonic acid to this system, some of it would convert to bicarbonate and hydrogen ions.

HCO 3 + H + H 2 CO 3

However, biological reactions rarely obtain equilibrium because the concentrations of the reactants or products or both are constantly changing, often with one reaction's product a reactant for another. To return to the example of excess hydrogen ions in the blood, forming carbonic acid will be the reaction's major direction. However, the carbonic acid can also leave the body as carbon dioxide gas (via exhalation) instead of converting back to bicarbonate ion, thus driving the reaction to the right by the law of mass action. These reactions are important for maintaining homeostasis in our blood.

HCO 3  + H +    H 2 CO 3    CO 2  + H 2 O