Reversible reactions

Many reactions, such as burning fuel or a precipitation reaction, are irreversible - they go to completion and cannot be reversed easily. Reversible reactions are different. In a reversible reaction, the products can react or break down to produce the original reactants again.

Examples of reversible reactions

Ammonium chloride

Ammonium chloride is a white solid. It breaks down when heated, forming ammonia and hydrogen chloride. When these two gases are cool enough, they react together to form ammonium chloride again. This reversible reaction can be modelled as:

ammonium chloride ⇌ ammonia + hydrogen chloride

NH4Cl(s) ⇌ NH3(g) + HCl(g)

The symbol ⇌ has two half arrowheads, one pointing in each direction. It is used in equations that model reversible reactions:

  • the forward reaction is the arrow that goes to the right
  • the backward reaction is the arrow that goes to the left

Example

Question

Write the balanced chemical equation for the forward reaction in the breakdown of ammonium chloride.

NH4Cl(s) → NH3(g) + HCl(g)

Copper sulfate

Blue copper sulfate is described as hydrated. The copper ions in its crystal lattice structure are surrounded by water molecules. This water is driven off when blue hydrated copper sulfate is heated, leaving white anhydrous copper sulfate. This reaction is reversible:

hydrated copper sulfate ⇌ anhydrous copper sulfate + water

CuSO4.5H2O(s) ⇌ CuSO4(s) + 5H2O(l)

Bunsen burner heating a bowl of hydrated copper(II) sulfate.

1. Bunsen burner heats a bowl of hydrated copper(II) sulfate