Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy

Free Energy

After learning that chemical reactions release energy when energy-storing bonds break, an important next question is how do we quantify and express the chemical reactions with the associated energy? How can we compare the energy that releases from one reaction to that of another reaction? We use a measurement of free energy to quantitate these energy transfers. Scientists call this free energy Gibbs free energy (abbreviated with the letter G) after Josiah Willard Gibbs, the scientist who developed the measurement. Recall that according to the second law of thermodynamics, all energy transfers involve losing some energy in an unusable form such as heat, resulting in entropy. Gibbs free energy specifically refers to the energy that takes place with a chemical reaction that is available after we account for entropy. In other words, Gibbs free energy is usable energy, or energy that is available to do work.

Every chemical reaction involves a change in free energy, called delta G (∆G). We can calculate the change in free energy for any system that undergoes such a change, such as a chemical reaction. To calculate ∆G, subtract the amount of energy lost to entropy (denoted as ∆S) from the system's total energy change. Scientists call this total energy change in the system enthalpy and we denote it as ∆H. The formula for calculating ∆G is as follows, where the symbol T refers to absolute temperature in Kelvin (degrees Celsius + 273):


We express a chemical reaction's standard free energy change as an amount of energy per mole of the reaction product (either in kilojoules or kilocalories, kJ/mol or kcal/mol; 1 kJ = 0.239 kcal) under standard pH, temperature, and pressure conditions. We generally calculate standard pH, temperature, and pressure conditions at pH 7.0 in biological systems, 25 degrees Celsius, and 100 kilopascals (1 atm pressure), respectively. Note that cellular conditions vary considerably from these standard conditions, and so standard calculated ∆G values for biological reactions will be different inside the cell.

Endergonic Reactions and Exergonic Reactions

If energy releases during a chemical reaction, then the resulting value from the above equation will be a negative number. In other words, reactions that release energy have a ∆G < 0. A negative ∆G also means that the reaction's products have less free energy than the reactants, because they gave off some free energy during the reaction. Scientists call reactions that have a negative ∆G and consequently release free energy exergonic reactions. Think: exergonic means energy is exiting the system. We also refer to these reactions as spontaneous reactions, because they can occur without adding energy into the system. Understanding which chemical reactions are spontaneous and release free energy is extremely useful for biologists, because these reactions can be harnessed to perform work inside the cell. We must draw an important distinction between the term spontaneous and the idea of a chemical reaction that occurs immediately. Contrary to the everyday use of the term, a spontaneous reaction is not one that suddenly or quickly occurs. Rusting iron is an example of a spontaneous reaction that occurs slowly, little by little, over time.

If a chemical reaction requires an energy input rather than releasing energy, then the ∆G for that reaction will be a positive value. In this case, the products have more free energy than the reactants. Thus, we can think of the reactions' products as energy-storing molecules. We call these chemical reactions endergonic reactions, and they are non-spontaneous. An endergonic reaction will not take place on its own without adding free energy.

Let’s revisit the example of the synthesis and breakdown of the food molecule, glucose. Remember that building complex molecules, such as sugars, from simpler ones is an anabolic process and requires energy. Therefore, the chemical reactions involved in anabolic processes are endergonic reactions. Alternatively the catabolic process of breaking sugar down into simpler molecules releases energy in a series of exergonic reactions. Like the rust example above, the sugar breakdown involves spontaneous reactions, but these reactions do not occur instantaneously. Figure shows some other examples of endergonic and exergonic reactions. Later sections will provide more information about what else is required to make even spontaneous reactions happen more efficiently.

Art Connection

 Four photos show (a) a compost pile, (b) a baby chick emerging from a fertilized egg, (c) sand art, and (d) a ball rolling downhill.
This figure shows some examples of endergonic processes (ones that require energy) and exergonic processes (ones that release energy). These include (a) a compost pile decomposing, (b) a chick developing from a fertilized egg, (c) sand art destruction, and (d) a ball rolling down a hill. (credit a: modification of work by Natalie Maynor; credit b: modification of work by USDA; credit c: modification of work by “Athlex”/Flickr; credit d: modification of work by Harry Malsch)

Look at each of the processes, and decide if it is endergonic or exergonic. In each case, does enthalpy increase or decrease, and does entropy increase or decrease?

An important concept in studying metabolism and energy is that of chemical equilibrium. Most chemical reactions are reversible. They can proceed in both directions, releasing energy into their environment in one direction, and absorbing it from the environment in the other direction (Figure). The same is true for the chemical reactions involved in cell metabolism, such as the breaking down and building up of proteins into and from individual amino acids, respectively. Reactants within a closed system will undergo chemical reactions in both directions until they reach a state of equilibrium, which is one of the lowest possible free energy and a state of maximal entropy. To push the reactants and products away from a state of equilibrium requires energy. Either reactants or products must be added, removed, or changed. If a cell were a closed system, its chemical reactions would reach equilibrium, and it would die because there would be insufficient free energy left to perform the necessary work to maintain life. In a living cell, chemical reactions are constantly moving towards equilibrium, but never reach it. This is because a living cell is an open system. Materials pass in and out, the cell recycles the products of certain chemical reactions into other reactions, and there is never chemical equilibrium. In this way, living organisms are in a constant energy-requiring, uphill battle against equilibrium and entropy. This constant energy supply ultimately comes from sunlight, which produces nutrients in the photosynthesis process.

The two plots show the change in Gibbs free energy as reactants are converted to products. Gibbs free energy decreases with time for an exergonic reaction (left), and the reaction is spontaneous. Gibbs free energy increases with time for an exergonic reaction (right), and the reaction is not spontaneous
Exergonic and endergonic reactions result in changes in Gibbs free energy. Exergonic reactions release energy. Endergonic reactions require energy to proceed.
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