Chemical formulae of compounds

A compound is a substance that contains two or more elements that are chemically combined. The elements in a compound are present in fixed proportions. For example, carbon dioxide always has 12 g of carbon for every 32 g of oxygen.

A chemical formula can be used to represent a compound. The formula shows:

  • the symbols for each element in the compound
  • the number of atoms of each element in a unit of the compound

For example, magnesium oxide is made up of two elements, magnesium and oxygen. Its formula is MgO. This shows that it has one atom of magnesium for every one atom of oxygen.

Here are some more examples of compounds and their formulae. The subscript number in a formula shows if there is more than one atom of an element.

Name of compoundFormula
Sodium chlorideNaCl
Potassium bromideKBr
Magnesium iodideMgI2
Carbon dioxideCO2
Carbon monoxideCO
Sulfur trioxideSO3
WaterH2O
AmmoniaNH3
MethaneCH4

Many compounds exist naturally. They can also be formed from their elements in chemical reactions. In a chemical reaction, one or more new substances are formed. Most chemical reactions involve energy changes.

It is not easy to split up a compound into its elements - the only way to do this is in chemical reactions.

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In compounds made up of non-metal elements only, the second word of the compound's name starts with mon-, di-, or tri-, eg carbon dioxide. This shows the number of atoms of this element for every one atom of the first element in the name. So for carbon dioxide there are two oxygen atoms for every carbon atom.